Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Commercial Crew: From Development to Integrated Capability

Sometime, hopefully in the not too distant future, we may be sitting at home as we watch a sleek mini-shuttle approaching the International Space Station (ISS), we will be captivated as it slowly backs itself into the unity module. There, a crew of 3 American astronauts will park their lifting body ship, and disembark to reside on board the orbiting research center for 6 months, maybe even a year.  The name of the spaceship is the Dream Chaser, and it doesn’t belong to the US Government, instead NASA is leasing it from the Sierra Nevada Corporation.  Possibly, at the same moment but in a different part of the sky, a Boeing owned CTS-100 might be docked into a privately funded Bigelow Space Station; while also simultaneously, a Dragon capsule, belonging to Space Explorations Technologies (a.k.a. SpaceX) might be parked in Geo Synchronous Orbit, contracted to carry a repair crew to a large communication satellite.
For many of us space advocates, all these scenes have been the dream we’ve been chasing (at least in spirit) for 50 years. It has taken a while to come to fruition, but it’s finally starting to happen, with the help of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programming Office (C3PO), the same office that oversees SpaceX’s and Orbital Science’s cargo delivery to the ISS.

In 2009, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), NASA was directed by Congress to select one or more private corporations to send astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015. The selected target date would be close to four years after the space shuttle program was scheduled to retire.  NASA complied by setting up the Commercial Crew and Development (CCDev) program “…to provide funding to assist viable commercial entities in the development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems”.[i]  The program actually was initiated, but went unfunded, under COTS during the Bush Administration.  President Obama, to the surprise of many, adopted the concept of developing a private space industry to take astronauts into orbit and he pushed funds to help it along.
In July of 2012 the above three companies where given over a billion dollars to develop their spaceships, but only under the condition of demonstrated system advancement.  Boeing received almost a half a billion dollars, SpaceX received a little less, and Sierra Nevada received almost a quarter billion.
I must admit, when these amounts were first announced, I was disappointed that SpaceX didn’t receive the larger amount. 
First, SpaceX is the new kid in town, it was founded in 2002 by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, and the company now sits on a 300 acre site that formally belonged to Beal Aerospace.  Mr. Beal had closed his company complaining that Boeing, Lockheed and NASA had a lock on rocket launching with their government subsidized ventures.[ii]   Using his PayPal fortune and a savvy staff, Mr. Musk was able to silence those who called him just another ‘thrillionaire’ and became the first privately funded company to supply the ISS with cargo.  Second, the idea of giving money to Boeing over SpaceX for technical development was a little ironic, given Boeing’s historical involvement in the space program. 

Unfortunately the 2015 date is now pushed back to 2017 due to budget cuts. William Gerstenmaier, the Assoiciate Administrator of Human Explorations and Operations at NASA, who administered the Selection, was no longer as concerned with developing private space transportations systems as he was getting astronauts to the ISS.  Boeing was starting to look like the company most likely to get our astronauts up there.  Frankly, SpaceX has some skeptics, Loren Thompson of Forbes echo’s the expressed concerns of the initial selection committee on whether SpaceX is a mature enough company to be given this technical task.[iii]  Space Exploration Technologies is new at space flight and they have no experience in human space travel. When compared to Boeing who was contracted for the Saturn V first stage, the space shuttle, and several components of the ISS, they seem risky.  In addition Boeing had acquired McDonald Douglas who was behind the Mercury Program and numerous satellite systems.[iv]  The other player, Sierra Nevada Corporation has been in business since 1963 and through its acquisitions, it is involved in satellites and rocket propulsion. 

So was the selection fair? A study of the selection process seems to suggest it might have been at least justified.
With Funds in hand from the ARRA the CCDev divided the program into three development phases and a certification period. 

CCDev-1 was the initial phase that announced the Commercial Crew Development program and collected proposals. The Proposals required three sections and an appendix, the Executive Summary Section, the Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan, and the Corporate Information Section. Thirty-six companies formally submitted proposals with one company immediately rejected because it did not comply with the proposal instructions.  A Participant Evaluation Panel then reviewed all proposals submitted; seventeen companies were eliminated due to lack of information, or failure to demonstrate their capabilities to provide a commercial crew transport system in the allotted time. The remaining corporations were then color code rated on their Corporate Information section and their Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan section. After a face to face interview with the remaining eighteen proposal representatives, the color coded evaluation was amended and submitted to the Selection Authority, Geoffrey Yoder, with recommendations. Under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, Congress set aside $50 million to be used for the “commercial crew space transportation concepts and enabling capabilities”.  In the ‘Selection Statement for CCDev’ development was defined to “show, within the timeframe of the agreement, significant progress on long lead capabilities, technologies and commercial crew risk mitigation tasks in order to accelerate the development of their commercial crew space transportation concept.”  They had to show they could get the job done.  Mr. Yoder awarded 5 companies the development funds:
·      Blue Origin                                        $3.7 million
·      The Boeing Company                     $18.0 million
·      Paragon Space Development            $1.4 million
·      Sierra Nevada Corporation             $20.0 million
·      United Launch Alliance*                  $6.7 million
*  The United Launch Alliance is actually Boeing and Lockheed-Martin working cooperatively to modify the Atlas rocket for human rating and it is involved in the delivery system only.

            Of the remaining 13 companies, one was no longer allowed to participate due to a red rating for their Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan.    
            Interesting to note, that SpaceX did not receive any funds in the initial award, Mr. Yoder explained, and almost apologized within his statement as to why SpaceX did not receive funds.  Mr. Yoder stated that he was impressed with the SpaceX proposals but that they requested a level of financial support that he was not comfortable with.[1]  “Comparing the many early stage developing activities in the SpaceX proposal with the level of support with the acceleration of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that are potentially achieved by the proposals from other companies, such as Boeing and Sierra Nevada, I did not see the relative value to the government in applying the limited ARRA funding available to the CCDev effort overall to this proposal.” 
           The question that comes to my mind was why couldn’t funds be granted for at least some of the development costs?  Was it because Mr. Yoder was more interested in getting a getting a crew capsule to the station than developing a private commercial company?  Also, would giving development money to Boeing and not SpaceX more likely bring the crew capsule about. The answer to this question may lie in the history of NASA funding.  Ever since after the moon landings, Congress has been notorious for setting up grand programs for NASA and then never providing the funds to carry out those programs. In fairness to them, NASA and it’s partners, like Boeing, have always plagued programs with schedule and cost overruns. Many Congressmen feel the need to keep NASA on a budgetary diet in order to keep the agency healthy.
As of Late 2011, Due to funding issue, the schedule for a commercial crew delivery had been pushed back to 2017.[2]  Currently, ISS funding extends only to 2020.         

           CCDev-2 followed with preliminary design reviews and development proposals to “further foster activity leading to the development of orbital Crew Transportation Systems (CTS)”. The announcement was released on October 25, 2010 and 22 companies submitted formal proposals. NASA initially intended to award $200 million dollars ‘to enable significant progress on the maturing of design and development of elements of the system…..with the overall objective of accelerating the availability of US CTS capabilites while ensuring crew and passenger safety.” After evaluation, four companies received $280 million for their development proposals.   The process was similar to CCDev-1 with a Technical Approach Section in lieu of Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan section.  The major difference in the two programs was in order to receive the funds a series of milestones had to be accomplished toward the stated development proposals.  Like it’s predecessor program, the evaluation first eliminated candidates (12) based on the feasibility and information found in their submissions, a color coded evaluation procedure followed by a review process eliminated other candidates (2) and rated the remaining submissions.  The Selection Authority, this time a Mr. Philip R. McAlister, awarded four companies the funds:

·      Blue Origin                                                      $22.0 million
·      The Boeing Company                                     $92.3 million
·      Sierra Nevada Corporation                             $80.0 million
·      Space Explorations                                         $75.0 million

            Due to the larger sum, Mr. McAlister did a thorough, in depth review of each remaining candidate to justify his awarded contractors choice.[3]

On July 10, 2012 The third round of the Commercial Crew Development process received submission under a new name, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCICap).  Again three sections of the submission were required: Executive Summary, Technical Approach, and Business Information. The review process by the PEP was similar to the previous CCDev reviews, with 7 submitters and 2 eliminated under the preliminary review.  The proposals required an integrated CTS, risk reduction tests, and the culmination of a crewed orbital demonstration flight.  No company was eliminated in the submission analysis and interview process, and Space X received a BLUE rating (Highest) for both their Technical Approach and their Business Information. William Gerstenmaier served as the Selection Authority and after a descriptive review of each company and their proposed systems, and also looking for diversity of approach, he awarded three companies, and their systems the development funds:

·      The Boeing Company                   CTS-100                      $460.0 million
·      Sierra Nevada Corporation           Dream Chaser              $212.5 million
·      Space Explorations                       Dragon                         $440.0 million

The CCICap funds are provided to help promote final development of the proposed systems for the commercial companies, and risk management systems, enabling them to provide fully functional human-rated spacecraft.[4] 
In conjunction with the CCICap development testing, phase 1 of the certification process begins. Here the final 3 selected corporations start their certification process to send astronauts into orbit. 
After reviewing the development of CCDev and putting in context the diverging economic and technical situations, I am not so sure the NASA investments were fair in the context of the CCDev.  Once you realize that the ‘Development’ aspect of the program gave way to the ‘Integrated Capability’, then begrudgingly Boeing will most likely win the contract.  I will admit that I distrust Boeing, simply because they dominate the aerospace industries in the US, and I hope that SpaceX will get a contract also.  I actually hope all three of the companies get a shot at sending astronauts to the ISS.  Sadly, Mr. Gerstenmaier indicated in a House Science Committee investigation that only one company will most likely get the contract.[5]
The program started so that free markets could liberate the space industry and the US would continue to lead in space exploration.  One company dominating the aerospace industry is hardly a free market, and I believe that if we don’t encourage market innovation to lead us upward, our lead will drop.  Granting a contract to two or all three of the companies would not only be good for SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, it would be good for Boeing and it would be good for America.

[1] Ibid 1
[2] Chow, Denis. “NASA revises plan to buy space taxis”, space.com. space.com. 15 December 2011, WEB, retrieved 15 July 2013, http::/www.space.com/13953-nasa-commercial-crew-space-act-agreements.html
[3] “Selection statement of commercial Crew Development Round 2”, spaceref.com. SpaceRef. 18 April 2011, PDF, retrieved 13 July 2013, http://images.spaeref.com/news/2011/SelectionStatement.Final.Signed.pdf
[4] “Selection statement of commercial crew integrated capabilities”, NASA CCP, NASA. 16 April 2013, PDF, retrieved 12 July 2013, http://commericalcrew.nasa.gov/document_file_get.cfm?docID=645
[5] “NASA's Commercial Crew Acquisition Strategy, House Science Committee, September 14, 2012”, SpaceKSCBlog, np, 14 September 2012, YouTube, retrieved 12 July 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc2MM_Ahsd4&t=69m0s

[i] “Selection statement for commercial Crew Development Building the Next Era in spaceflight”, JSC-CCDev-1. NASA. 9 December 2008, PDF, retrieved 12 July 2013, http://hobbyspace.com/AAdmin/archive/Reference/CCDev_Source_Selection_Statement_signed-1.pdf
[ii] “A bold plan to go where men have gone before”,  NYTime business, New York Times, 5 February 2005, WEB, retrieved 12 July 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/business/yourmoney/05rocket_html
[iii] Loren Thompson, “The case against SpaceX, part II”, Forbes, Forbes.com LLC, 31 May 2011, WEB, retrieved 15 July 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/beltway/2011/05/31/the-case-against-spacex-part-ii/
[iv] “Jets and Moon Rockets”, History of Boeing, Boeing, nd, WEB, retrieved 15 July 2013, http://www.boeing.com/boeing/history/narrative/jets.page?

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