NASA announced today that three companies, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Boeing have been selected to provide crew vehicles to NASA’s commercial spaceflight program.
The $1.1 billion announcement also sets a goal: launching Americans from US soil in the next five years.
“Today, we are announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U. S. soil on space systems built by American companies,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a press conference today at the Kennedy Space Center. “We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country.”
Watch the press conference
Three Companies Selected
The three winning designs were part of the previous NASA competition, CCDev2, that began last year.
Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada will continue development of its reusable spaceplane called the Dream Chaser. Resembling a miniature Space Shuttle, the spacecraft will utilize non-toxic propellants will launch from Cape Canaveral air station and land on the same runway the Space Shuttle did at the Kennedy Space Center. The Sierra Nevada system will launch utilizing the US Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Sierra Nevada will receive $212.5 million from NASA and must meet 9 design milestones.
Those milestones include risk reduction, test flights, and system integration.
SpaceX, who successfully flew an unmanned mission to the International Space Station last month, will receive a total of $440 million in NASA funding to continue its work to make a human rated version of its Dragon capsule. It will launch from the company’s Cape Canaveral launch facility. The company must meet 14 milestones.
SpaceX’s milestones will include two flight tests that consist of a launch pad abort and an inflight abort.
Unlike the unmanned version that splashes down in the Pacific Ocean with parachutes, SpaceX is looking to have the crewed version return to Earth on solid ground. The company calls it a “breakthrough propulsive landing system for gentle ground touchdowns on legs.” That same propulsion system will be used as an abort system to quickly separate the capsule from its rocket in the case of an emergency.
Boeing, which designed and built many of the International Space Station modules, will be awarded $460 million to continue development of its CST-100 capsule. It will launch from Cape Canaveral and will return to earth utilizing parachutes over land similar to the Russian Soyuz capsule currently used to shuttle astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the space station. Boeing must meet 19 milestones that include significant work on its propulsion systems, avionics, and overall engineering.
The commercial crew program will give NASA more options for launching humans to space should a problem arise with one of the systems. Sierra Nevada and Boeing will utilize the reliable Atlas V rocket, and SpaceX will launch with their own Falcon 9 rocket. Should a problem arise with one system, NASA could move missions to another one to prevent delays.
A third rocket design from ATK, the makers of the Space Shuttle rocket boosters, was not chosen by NASA in today’s announcement. Also not making the cut was Blue Origin, a company started by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin received over $25 million in prior NASA commercial crew rounds.
Commercial crew flights will not be limited to just NASA. Read our prior story on how NASA won’t be the only entity sending humans into space.
In addition to commercial systems, NASA is also moving forward on designing its own spacecraft. A spacebound Orion crew capsule already at the Kennedy Space Center is prepping for its first unmanned test launch in 2014. It will eventually be launched aboard NASA’s new Space Launch System, a mammoth rocket that will take the Orion and its crew members beyond low earth orbit. SLS is slated for its first test flight in 2017.