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NASA Kicks Off a Private Space Race Between Boeing and SpaceX

Posted by Jason Davis and Casey Dreier

17-09-2014 12:55 CDT

Topics: commercial spaceflight, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, human spaceflight, International Space Station

Boeing and SpaceX have won multi-billion dollar contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The big announcement came Tuesday afternoon, and marks the start of the latest phase of NASA's ambitious Commercial Crew program. The space agency aims to restore human launch capability to the United States, while reducing the cost of spacecraft development and kickstarting a new industry.

The two winning companies have spent the past several years refining concepts for their spacecraft under previous NASA contracts—the aptly-albeit-poorly-named CCDev and CCiCap, for those of you keeping score at home. Tuesday’s announcement kicked off the next phase, called CCtCap, or Commercial Crew Transportation Capability.

Boeing’s CST-100 will launch atop an Atlas V rocket, and SpaceX’s Dragon Version 2 will fly on a Falcon 9 v1.1, though each rocket has yet to be rated by NASA as safe for astronauts. Notably, both spacecraft are capsule designs, which, along with Orion, marks a complete departure away from the space plane concept epitomized by the Space Shuttle. A third contender based on this concept, Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser, was not selected for further NASA investment.

SpaceX

SpaceX Dragon V2 Flight Animation

Boeing

Boeing CST-100 promo video

NASA’s decision to select two commercial providers was news in itself, as it was unclear if congressional funding for the program would be able to support the development of multiple crew vehicles. There was also political pressure from Congress—the most recent NASA budget passed by the House (though not by the Senate) included language that urged NASA to select only one company for continued investment.

NASA has insisted on maintaining multiple contracts to encourage competition and lower cost and risk to the agency. While these contracts are “fixed cost” (i.e. any overruns are the responsibility of the company, not NASA), failure to deliver a working vehicle with only a single contractor would, in effect, put enormous pressure on NASA to provide additional funding to ensure access to the ISS. With multiple companies, one could fail and NASA could pin its hopes on the competitor.

The work ahead for Boeing and SpaceX will not be easy. According to Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, there are three components to these new contracts that define a series of certification milestones that culminate in a demonstration flight to the ISS with a NASA astronaut. The first component—the milestones—look like this:

  • Certification baseline review. This identifies the steps required to meet NASA’s safety and performance requirements, and outlines the timeline leading to certification. 
  • ISS design certification review. The design of the spacecraft and its integrated systems will be assessed for crew safety.
  • Flight test readiness review. This shows that the spacecraft is ready for its demo flight to the ISS, during which a NASA astronaut will be aboard.
  • Operational readiness review. The launch control center, mission control center and launch pad will be checked to ensure their final configurations match the original designs. This ensures the commercial provider is ready for regular, continuous operations.
  • Certification review. This is where NASA reviews everything one last time to certify that the spacecraft and its human cargo are ready to fly.

For the second component of each company’s contract, the spacecraft will fly two to six missions to the station, delivering four crewmembers each time. This will increase the station’s standard crew complement to seven. During return trips to Earth, scientific cargo can be retrieved within two hours of landing. “This is huge for researchers in the U.S. working on time-sensitive investigations,” Lueders said.

Finally, a third part of the contract is devoted to “special studies.” NASA didn’t offer many details on this part, but did say it could be used for additional on-orbit spacecraft demonstrations.

Though the exact details on the contracts were not released—and NASA officials were extremely hesitant to discuss them—it appears that Boeing and SpaceX proposed very different prices to achieve the same set of milestones. Boeing’s proposal asked for $4.2 billion to build the CST-100, while SpaceX requested $2.6 billion for its Dragon V2. NASA would not discuss why the costs came out so differently (the space agency is currently spending $450 million per year purchasing seats aboard Russian Soyuz capsules for its astronauts).

In March, NASA released its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request which projected a total of $3.4 billion for its commercial crew program over the next five years—just half of the $6.8 billion in awards announced on Tuesday. We are not yet clear on how NASA intends to pay for this larger amount, though it could be that the contracts extend beyond Fiscal Year 2019. Another possibility is that it will use other internal program funding to support the development of the crew capsules (as was the case with the commercial cargo program, which was listed on the books within ISS operations). It could also simply be that NASA intends to ask Congress and the White House for significantly more Commercial Crew funding than it had recently planned. Finally, the $6.8 billion in awards is a "maximum" amount—presumably, if the partners fly less than six missions, they earn less.

Commercial Crew Funding

Casey Dreier

Commercial Crew Funding
Over the past five years, Congress has provided a total of $1 billion fewer dollars for NASA’s commercial crew program than was requested by the White House. Amounts in millions of dollars. FY = fiscal year.

The dawn of CCtCap kickstarts a private space race between Boeing and SpaceX to see who makes it to the ISS first. On the inner hatch of the station’s Harmony node is an American flag that was carried on STS-1, the space shuttle’s first flight. In 2011, the flag was brought aboard the station during the shuttle’s final mission, STS-135. The first crew to visit the station in an American spacecraft gets the honor of “capturing” the flag and returning it back to Earth.

Pitting a nimble New Space company against an Old Space industry giant in a high-profile race to the station is an interesting strategy for NASA. For Boeing, SpaceX and their respective supporters, the playing field has been leveled. It’s easy to get caught up in the politics, funding decisions and contract details, but the wider view here is that two companies—not two countries—are competing with each other to fly human beings into space. This represents a significant shift that will have far-ranging impacts on the cost and access to space. The future of spaceflight may not look exactly how we thought it might, but it’s here, and it’s happening right before us. May the best company win. 

Capture the flag

NASA

Capture the flag
A flag flown on the first and last space shuttle missions was left on the inner hatch of the International Space Station's Harmony node, where it awaits the next crew of astronauts that arrive aboard an American spacecraft.
 
See other posts from September 2014

 

Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, human spaceflight, International Space Station

Comments:

Messy: 09/17/2014 04:41 CDT

So they decided to bump the most efficient and best designed one of the bunch, the Dreamchaser shuttle? Sounds like something NASA would do.....

ethanol : 09/17/2014 04:44 CDT

On the one hand, this decision makes sense, in a NASA sort of way. I think there is a benefit to keeping at least two players in the running, if only to keep them honest. With the prices and capability SpaceX is promising, and the progress they have made, they had to be one of the two. But NASA's (perhaps reasonable) aversion to risk means that they want a known quantity in the running also. Whatever else I think of them, I have no doubt that Boeing is up to the task. On the other hand, this feels like yet another example of what economists would call "perverse incentives" in the space business. Boeing gets paid twice as much for the same service, because that's what they offered to do it for. In an ideal world, if SpaceX can live up to their promises, Boeing would get dropped as soon as this contract is up. But greater profits mean better lobbying and, most likely, more high paying jobs to be lost if they aren't kept on. Of course, maybe I'm just a hopeless cynic...

suitti: 09/18/2014 12:40 CDT

In an article elsewhere on this topic, it was said that safety would be held to the high space shuttle standards. I hope not. I hope that safety standards would be considerably higher.

Shane: 09/18/2014 12:53 CDT

I am curious about the Dragon capsule's ability to land with rocket power only. It sure looks cool, and seems like it might save costs in some ways -- no need to retrieve the craft from the ocean or a desert. But I would love to see the bloggers address the trade-offs involved. Isn't a rocket-powered landing inherently less safe? And what about the fuel costs? Instead of coming down empty, it comes down with tanks full enough for decent, and all that weight had to make orbit. NASA seems to prefer a parachute landing. Is the rocket-powered landing capability just there to look cool and set SpaceX apart? Or is that what the future of space flight looks like? Also, why dump the space plane? I'm not an engineer, but that seems like a cost-effective AND controlled way to return to earth. Seemed to work well for the shuttle. Or is it just a problem with the company's progress, and not the space plane concept?

Casey Dreier: 09/18/2014 01:19 CDT

sutti: The safety standards for human rating are based on post-Columbia incident reports, and will be higher than the Shuttle itself.

Casey Dreier: 09/18/2014 01:28 CDT

Shane: I'm not an engineer and can't properly answer those questions, though I would note that the Dragon V2 will initially use parachutes for its landing, not rockets as advertised. Why didn't the DreamChaser get selected? NASA did not share any details on how or why the selections were made as they were, so anything written about this is pure speculation at this point. We'll have to wait for further information, which NASA said would come out at some point in the unforeseen future.

ethanol: 09/18/2014 05:06 CDT

Shane: I was also initially surprised by SpaceX's rocket landing plan. However after more reading it seems to make some sense. Fuel costs are always marginal in such an enterprise, and it seems that their #1 goal seems to be fast/simple turn-around. They seem to feel that inspecting / repairing / repacking parachutes is a considerably harder task than simply refueling. Perhaps more importantly, pinpoint landings open up many more landing sites, and mean that you can deliver the capsule to where you need it, instead of having to go pick it up from the salt flats or somewhere. Whether these advantages will be worth the initial design cost depends, as with most of their plans, on how often they actually end up flying the thing. Of course wings are another approach to all of these problems (although you do need a runway) but they make for a complex, expensive craft with less payload capacity than a capsule. Not that I wasn't rooting for SN too...

Sameer: 09/18/2014 05:12 CDT

I have to admit that I am sort of rooting for Space X in this 'race'. I think they have some innovative ideas and are better suited to execute them in a cost effective way. I was very happy to see that they were selected.SpaceX has put a lot of thought into the design of their rockets and the Dragon capsule and have set their sight on crew transport right from the beginning. Boeing's plan doesn't seem to have any innovative concepts - mostly tried and tested NASA tech from Apollo missions and yet it is more expensive than SpaceX. It would have been good if NASA had dumped Boeing and gone with SNC/Dream Chaser.

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/20/2014 07:50 CDT

Very extensive yet deep article, informative. Especially the hints that now the CC program will be more costly than using the cheap Soyuz, it's sole selling points is safety (backup) and capability (place a 4th US crew member on ISS, doing 70-80 % science IIRC.) Thanks! Half a bummer then, keeping the DC had maximized diversity. @Messy: Apparently it wasn't "most efficient and best designed" then (or had other drawbacks). @ethanol: Boeing doesn't get paid "twice as much". It is comparing apples and pears because the V1 capsule design was paid for by COTS, but if you add up the sums over all CC programs Boeing, even if theywere in all phases and SapceX was not, comes out like something 30-50 % more expensive. In fact, I was surprised over their low bid, since they will start their pad aborts late 2016 and SpaceX late 2014. Everything else alike, it hints that Boeing may be 2 years behind, they have opted to do prep work but no plate bending until the final CCtCap was a done deal. Playing catch up is costly. (So maybe they aren't fully 2 years behind...) @suitti: Mind that the Shuttle had poor standards but great results. IIRC the 2nd safest craft ever behind Souyz on an individual basis. It's when you engage the Airplane Fallacy (one large incident worse than many small), that it becames 'unsafe'. @Shane: NASA has asked for, and gets, parachute landings. Space tourists may vote for a "helicopter precision" landing outside the spacefield lounge, or NASA may want it on the next contract. Besides, V2 is a 3d gen craft, landing on its engines like SciFi always intended it to! [Of course the cool Buran did that too, but that only made it a real space-to-air plane, not a space-to-ground spacecraft.]

Fartzberg: 01/09/2015 09:02 CST

Replacing the shuttle with 60's era science after madam president fired the NASA science team, ended shuttle 2, Constellation, replacing the team with an astronaut is like putting a test driver in charge of ford. To make matters worse interjecting a political donor kickback company (bankruptcy expert) into the space age is equally bizarre.,nothing good will come of it.

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