CCtCAP Commercial Crew Announcement Expected Soon
NASA declined today (August 18) to confirm rumors that it will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract by the end of the month, but anticipation is mounting. Whenever it happens, it will be a major step forward for the commercial crew program and achieving the oft-stated goal of restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil.
A NASA spokesman replied to an email query this morning by saying only that NASA still expects to make an announcement in the late-August, early-September time frame, as it has been saying for months.
NASA officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process before announcing the award(s), even to say who submitted bids. Expectations are that at least the three companies being funded under the current phase of the program – Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – did so.
Those three are SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, Boeing with the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser. Dragon V2 would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing and Sierra Nevada have been planning to use Atlas V rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
One goal of the commercial crew program is to end America’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of the spacecraft are American-built. The Falcon 9 rocket is American-built. The Atlas V rocket, however, while manufactured in Alabama, is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, so whether it is “American” is a matter of opinion. In addition, the future availability of RD-180s -- and therefore of the Atlas V -- is now in question. The Obama Administration announced in January that it plans to keep the ISS operating until at least 2024 so whatever commercial crew services the companies plan to offer would need to extend to that time period. Department of Defense (DOD) officials acknowledged at a Senate hearing last month that it is time to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 because of the changed U.S.-Russia geopolitical environment. The Air Force hopes the RD-180 engines currently on order will be delivered, enabling routine Atlas V launches for several years, but that would not last through 2024. Boeing and Sierra Nevada thus would need an alternative. One possibility is ULA's Delta IV, which uses Aerojet Rocketdyne’s American-built RS-68 engine. The Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V, though, which could change the cost assumptions of those bids.
How many companies will win is largely dependent on how much money NASA has to pay them. Although they are termed “commercial” efforts, in fact they rely on the government to pay a share of the development costs and to be a market for the services. For the current CCiCAP phase, NASA funded “2 ½” companies – two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) at the full amount they requested and one (Sierra Nevada) at half the amount.
NASA insists that it wants to be able to select at least two companies to continue into this final CCtCAP phase so that in the future it will have two competitors providing services to keep prices down. Congress has never provided NASA with the full amount of funding requested for the program, however. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly make clear that their priority is for NASA itself to build the big, new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), not the commercial crew program to take them only to LEO and the ISS.
Some influential members of Congress appear to be warming up to commercial crew, perhaps because of the success of the commercial cargo program and the desire to end reliance on Russia. Through the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo initiative, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation developed new rockets (Falcon 9 and Antares) and spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus) to take cargo to the ISS. NASA now purchases commercial cargo services from those two companies.
The Obama Administration decided to use the same approach, essentially a public-private partnership, to develop systems to take crews to and from the ISS after adopting the Bush Administration’s plan to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. The last space shuttle flight – and the last time America could launch humans into space – was in 2011. NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since then at a cost of about $450 million a year.
Based on the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed the House and the version agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress plans to provide more for commercial crew than in the past, even if not the full request of $848 million. The House approved $785 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to $805 million. Whether either amount is enough for NASA to make more than one CCtCAP award is a question that will be answered only when the announcement is made.
Not everyone in Congress has bought into commercial crew, however. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a determined advocate of SLS, which is being built in his state of Alabama, and a commercial crew skeptic. The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its CJS subcommittee, he included language in the committee-approved version of NASA’s FY2015 appropriations bill that would require CCtCAP winners to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts. Opponents call it a “poison pill” because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork, unlike big companies like Boeing. Boeing and SpaceX are considered the two top contenders based on the CCiCAP awards.
That appropriations bill has not passed the Senate, but was briefly debated on the Senate floor in June. At the time, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the Shelby provision because the requirements are “unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition” and could increase cost and delay schedule.
Selecting the winner(s) of the CCtCAP awards before that appropriations bill or a Continuing Resolution that might include similar language passes Congress could be one motivation for NASA making its decision sooner rather than later.
The CCtCAP award(s) will bring the United States one step closer to once again launching people into space. When the Obama Administration initially proposed the commercial crew program in the FY2011 budget request, it anticipated systems would be ready by 2015, resulting in a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement. That date has slipped to 2017, however, because it did not get the requisite funding. Some of the companies have indicated they could be ready sooner if more money was available, but NASA is planning on 2017. Until then, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way for ISS crew members to travel back and forth.
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