Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has finally hit the ground running for NASA's Commercial Crew program. Nelson is opposed to a House bill ordering NASA to immediately downgrade to a single vendor, according to a May 14 piece by Florida Today.
“Why should we not have competition for commercial crew and bring down the cost?” Nelson said, calling the House bill to select one company for the Commercial Crew Program "silliness" and "anti-competitive."
NASA's efforts to foster the growth of commercial manned spaceflight have become more contentious with Republicans and Democrats crossing paths, the former adding more regulation, the latter encouraging competition.
Last week, the House passed a spending bill that compared NASA's Commercial Crew program to the failed Department of Energy loan in Solyndra – a bizarre comparison, because under the current procurement structure using Space Act Agreements, the companies participating in the competition do not get paidif they do not perform. Solyndra simply took a loan and went belly up.
NASA managers have stated a downselect at this point to a single company could end up doubling the cost of fielding a commercially-built system for providing manned transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and low earth orbit (LEO). The agency wants a total of $4.8 billion for its CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) to have multiple companies competing to develop manned spaceflight systems, ultimately hoping to have two companies emerge to provide U.S.-flagged services, rather than continuing a dependence upon Russia Soyuz flights.
Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX currently participate in the Commercial Crew program, but ATK (News - Alert) just publicly threw its hat into the ring for CCiCap with a fully integrated proposal, including a spacecraft, launch vehicle and full mission operational details.
ATK says it can do a first test flight of its Liberty system in 2014 with crewed flights in 2015.
NASA has yet to announce winners for CCiCap, but the number of proposals it can bring forward in the next round is dependent upon funding. The agency wants around $830 million per year over the next five years, but the House and Senate are closing on a number of $500 million to $530 million for the next fiscal year.
In various PowerPoint presentations, NASA has hinted it would like to have three companies in CCiCap with a final two vendors emerging to offer flights to ISS by 2016 or 2017 – again, depending on funding.
If competition is not allowed to progress, further ugliness around Commercial Crew is likely to continue. ATK is making a strong PR case for Liberty, but the company is a long way from building and testing a manned space vehicle when compared to Boeing's CST-100 capsule or SpaceX's (News - Alert) Dragon capsule.
SpaceX is flying an integrated system with the Falcon 9/Dragon combination and simply needs to upgrade its capsule with a crew escape system. It is also reducing risk each time it launches a Falcon 9/Dragon for NASA for ISS supply runs under its COTS/CRS contracts, so it would appear to be the logical "single vendor" downselect – a fact that would likely result in a protest by Boeing (News - Alert) with both the CST-100 and more Atlas V rocket sales on the line.
Boeing has already committed to leasing facilities at Kennedy Space Center for building its capsule and supporting manned launches.
Edited by Braden Becker