SpaceX Certified to Resupply ISS, Sierra Nevada Meets First CCiCAP Milestone
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced on August 23 that SpaceX is now certified to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with cargo following the successful test flight of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft in May.
The first Dragon flight as part of the operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract is scheduled for October. SpaceX has been demonstrating the capability to send a cargo spacecraft to the ISS; now it is transitioning to routine services. NASA already had contracted with SpaceX for 12 resupply flight services through 2015 before the tests were completed.
The tests were part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program where NASA provides funding for two companies to develop commercial space transportation systems to take cargo to ISS. NASA and the companies share the costs for developing the systems, which differentiates this type of agreement from a typical government development contract where the government provides all the money. The COTS program began in 2006 under the George W. Bush Administration after it decided that the space shuttle program would be terminated once ISS construction was completed and alternative ways to resupply ISS crews would be required.
The other company in the COTS program is Orbital Sciences Corp. The first launch of its Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled for December. That launch date, like those for SpaceX's test flights, has slipped several times. Orbital will be launching from the Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia rather than Cape Canaveral, FL. Orbital did not join the COTS program until about a year and a half after SpaceX, replacing a company (Rocketplane Kistler) that failed to meet its milestones.
The corollary to the COTS program, which is for cargo services, is the Commercial Crew program. The Obama Administration embraced this initiative, the initial steps of which were taken during the Bush Administration, to replace the shuttle's crew carrying capability. NASA recently selected three companies -- SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada -- for the third phase of the commercial crew program, dubbed Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP). Bolden also announced on August 23 that Sierra Nevada has completed its first milestone under the CCiCAP award already. That step was a program implementation plan review for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, the only winged vehicle of the three competing designs. SpaceX and Boeing are developing capsules that resemble Apollo spacecraft. Dream Chaser looks somewhat like the space shuttle.
Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser during full scale captive carry test, May 2012
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