The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program is a federally funded, NASA-generated process to foster the efforts of private industry to develop low-Earth orbit. In other words, NASA stopped flying the space shuttle and wants to help private companies take over some of the work that the shuttle did, namely transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA and private industry also want to work together to develop other projects in low-Earth orbit.
The big talking point about this investment of our tax dollars in getting companies like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing off the ground and beyond the atmosphere is that NASA will be able to focus on space exploration beyond our planet’s orbit. The focus at Space Tech Expo, though, is on private industry and the business of space travel.
In 2010, NASA invested $50M in five private companies. In 2011, NASA invested $315M in four companies and also supported unfunded contracts to three additional companies. Last August, NASA made awards under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to three companies: SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing. Those three 2012 awards totaled $1,112,500,000—that’s 1.1 billion dollars. If you add all that up, NASA could have paid for three shuttle launches over the last three years. So the rise of Commercial Crew doesn’t mean that NASA has handed over orbital space travel to private industry but, rather, that NASA helps boost private companies up to orbit.
NASA has set up a new kind of relationship with the aerospace industry. Each company is responsible for day-to-day design decisions. Without the need to continually negotiate with NASA about small design changes in the space vehicle, the design process is streamlined and becomes more efficient, or at least design and development of a vehicle and system take less time. NASA retains oversight, of course, and maps out the path to certification. In addition, each company has hired a former shuttle astronaut to be an integral part of spacecraft development. The relationship between the aerospace industry and NASA seems to be exceptionally good right now.
Numerous private industry players showed up at the Space Tech Conference in Long Beach, California, to tout their accomplishments. The three companies awarded the CCiCap money for development presented their stories and plans on Tuesday.
SpaceX was represented by Garrett Reisman, an astronaut we’ve met before. He’s excited about his new role and about what he considers a Golden Age of Spaceflight occurring right now. SpaceX is moving at a good clip and has already begun to resupply ISS with the Dragon spacecraft, a capsule reminiscent of Apollo days. The company is actively working to adapt the capsule for crew transportation, which involves adding a launch abort system. SpaceX Founder, CEO, and Chief Designer Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, too, and Reisman thinks that’s a great idea. While biological challenges remain, Reisman is convinced that the engineering problems for a Mars trip have already been solved. He said, “We’re trying a little bit of everything.”
CEO Mark Sirangelo spoke for Sierra Nevada. He calls the Dream Chaser vehicle “what the shuttle might have been if the shuttle had been redesigned for the future.” That company’s vehicle is now at Dryden Flight Research Center for a series of flight tests that follows the test-flight plan used for space shuttle Enterprise. Dream Chaser is a lifting body like the space shuttle, and, like that first shuttle, the first Dream Chaser is not intended for space travel. Former astronaut Steve Lindsey is at Sierrra Nevada and is working with NASA Langley on developing a flight simulator for the vehicle. The company has begun construction of the first orbital Dream Chaser.
Boeing’s John Mulholland represented the old-timer of the aerospace industry. Boeing is working on the CST-100 capsule and has met 8 of 19 development milestones on schedule. Safety is something NASA will be looking for in the certification process for all these orbital spacecraft, so Mulholland emphasized, “It was really important to ensure we’re driving safety early in the design.”
Mulholland pointed out that Boeing can “shamelessly steal from other Boeing projects” and that all the companies can steal ideas and designs from Shuttle and Apollo. He called his fellow panelists and the companies they represent “the teammates.” The others chimed in that that’s the way it’s working. They are competitors, but these companies can build on each other’s success and can work with NASA as a team to help refine the certification process. The aerospace industry has never put on a more cheerful face than it has these days.
We’ll have more about commercial crew and about the Space Tech Expo. And be sure to check out our ongoing series “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular.”