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An Updated List of NASA's Commercial Crew Partner Milestones

Posted By Jason Davis

12-09-2014 16:42 CDT

Topics: commercial spaceflight, Space Policy

Sometime this month, NASA is expected to announce which private spaceflight company (or companies) will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the United States has been booking rides on Russian Soyuz flights, and that's expected to continue through 2017. But NASA's commercial spaceflight program is making steady progress. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation are already making regular ISS supply runs, and SpaceX's Dragon capsule is capable of returning cargo and experiments to Earth.

This phase of the selection process is called Commercial Crew integrated Capability, or CCiCap. It kicked off in 2012. The three contending spacecraft are Boeing's CST-100 capsule, SpaceX's Dragon Version 2 capsule and Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser space plane. Both the CST-100 and Dream Chaser launch on top of an Atlas V rocket, which currently uses a Russian-built RD-180 engine. SpaceX's Dragon launches on a Falcon 9.

Since most of us aren't privy to NASA's behind-the-scenes decision making process, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at each company's CCiCap milestones. All three companies received fixed-price funding awards tied to a series of progress milestones. When a company completes a milestone, it earns another portion of its award. 

Finding an up-to-date list of these milestones is surprisingly difficult, so I created my own. The data for my list come from NASA's Return on Investment Reports, Space Act Agreement amendments, press releases, and NASA email correspondence. My list also includes SpaceX's new milestones, 13A through 13D, as well as the new due dates for SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.

I plotted out the percentage of milestones each company has completed over the duration of CCiCap. Boeing has finished their milestones, Sierra Nevada has completed 85 percent and SpaceX has completed 70 percent.

CCiCap percentage of milestones met over time

Jason Davis

CCiCap percentage of milestones met over time

Finally, I calculated the percentage of total funding that each milestone represents, and plotted cumulative funding percentages over time. Boeing has earned all of its funding, Sierra Nevada has captured 92 percent, and SpaceX has earned 78 percent.

CCiCap percentage of milestone funding awarded over time

Jason Davis

CCiCap percentage of milestone funding awarded over time

From a quantitative standpoint, Boeing is the leader. Since the first quarter of 2013, the company has been ahead in percentage of milestones completed and percentage of funding awarded. Plus, there's the simple fact that they've finished all of their milestones, while SpaceX and Sierra Nevada asked for extensions. But from a qualitative standpoint, things are less straightforward. SpaceX has already proven they can fly missions to the ISS. And they're the only CCiCap participant with a pad abort test and an in-flight abort test among their milestones.

For NASA, it's a tough decision fraught with political peril. There are big ramifications for all three competitors—probably more so for less-established SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. The American flag left aboard the station by the crew of STS-135 awaits the winner.

The Dream Chaser

NASA / Ken Ulbrich

The Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser spacecraft is readied for a tow test at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Aug. 2, 2013. During the test, a truck towed the Dream Chaser to a speed of 60 mph before releasing it, allowing engineers to test the vehicle's braking and landing systems.
See other posts from September 2014


Read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, Space Policy


Derek: 09/12/2014 05:27 CDT

It's worth it to note that companies set their own milestones. While Boeing is "ahead", it was fairly conservative on the milestones it set. Meaning it spent most of its $450 or so million in paperwork, CAD files, and making low fidelity mockups. SpaceX, on the other hand, set its bar really high by having two pad abort tests of actual flight hardware to complete before calling their prize finished. Then there's SNC, which also used its CCiCap money to build flight hardware, and that's at half the price of the other two. Given how comparatively little Boeing did with how much money it was allocated (and I say comparatively, since the paperwork and design piece of this is no small feat), I'm not surprised they're now twiddling their thumbs while waiting for the others to catch up. It sure makes them look good to people who don't look that closely though..

Paul Scutts: 09/12/2014 06:33 CDT

IMO, final result: Boeing is a standout first, SNC is second & SpaceX misses out. Reasons; It’s a slam dunk for Boeing. They are a known quantity with a known track record, their technological approach is tried & true and they are used to doing business the Government & NASA way plus they know how to look after the right people etc. They are that confident of being awarded the (main) contract, they have implied that if they are not successful, then they will “take their bat & ball and go home” i.e. as far as Boeing is concerned there is no business case to build CST-100 if no public funds are involved. Not that they necessarily would not proceed, but it permits the more experienced to say to the less experienced, “hey, we (meaning you) shouldn’t upset the “Big B””. Congress wanted one provider, NASA wanted two, a main provider with a backup. NASA got its way because it really didn’t tread on any toes, it allowed NASA to have its little “victory”, doubly rewards Boeing (by having SNC as runner-up) and has the added advantage of providing a backup to CST-100 plus NASA has their Apollo style capsule and their “mini-me” shuttle. For not placing SpaceX, Elon Musk is going to build Dragon regardless. He needs a delivery system to the Martian surface and Dragon’s it. It will take a brave person within NASA to select SpaceX, with their bold and innovative approach, which, if pulled off, will dramatically reduce overall costs. I just don’t see conservative old NASA having the “cahoonas” to go with SpaceX. P.S. In my opinion, the real reason why SpaceX has put its hat in the Commercial Crew ring, even though it knows it doesn’t stand (much of) a chance, is to add pressure to the US Government to award it more of the DOD business being handed to ULA. This suits SpaceX better, Commercial Crew contract(s) come with all sorts of conditions & requirements which really doesn’t/won’t suit SpaceX’s way of doing business.

Derelk: 09/13/2014 03:14 CDT

While it's true that Boeing might be the "safest" choice from a flight record standpoint, the fact that they haven't built any actual flight hardware even though they've been allocated the biggest chunk of cash makes my raise my eyebrows a bit. Their strategy makes the statement that they won't commit to building anything until they've snagged the contract, which IMHO borders on cronyism. It's like the long-time diva of an opera company, who never shows up to auditions anymore because she knows she'll get the part. In my experience, that sort of attitude cannot be sustained forever, as there's always some young buck making their way up the ranks who is motivated to outdo you, and if you don't continue to work hard, that's just what they'll do. The fact that the other providers are hedging their bets shows that they're motivated to continue to do the work to improve upon themselves, and branch out into new businesses, whereas I fear CST-100 would go the path of Delta IV and become a super expensive spacecraft, with only a few very specific uses. In any case, I'd be fine with Dragon v2 not making it this round. While it's a super sexy design, I think it still has a lot to prove. But if Dragon isn't in the running, I would hope there is at least some thought given toward moving one of the other two spacecraft onto Falcon 9. With mounting uncertainty about US' partnerships with Russia, I think it would be incredibly short sighted of NASA to solely rely on Atlas V with its Russian made engines to carry its people into space. Bolden has already made the case that we can't count on Russia for rides on Soyuz forever (Rogozin is already trying to rub our noses in the situation by moving Soyuz survival training to occupied Crimea), so we need that redundancy on F9 if we're going to make the "moving away from reliance on Russia" argument make any sense.

Ad Astra: 09/13/2014 09:28 CDT

The criticism that Boeing has only done paper milestones is false. In actuality, 7/20 of Boeing's milestones were hardware tests compared to 4 for SpaceX (of which only 2 have been completed). Yes, SpaceX set ambitious milestones, but surprise surprise, they're late on delivery. Past performance is a strong indicator of future performance, and by that measure, SpaceX will announce slip after slip of their remaining tests and finally finish years after they originally said they would.

Derek: 09/13/2014 12:32 CDT

Perhaps I am being overly critical of Boeing. I'm really cautiously optimistic about both capsule designs. Spacex is an exciting choice because promises to shake up the stagnating human spaceflight industry, while with Boeing there's a feeling of assurance that it will make its deadline. On the other hand, Spacex has a tendency to promise more than it can deliver, while Boeing seems stuck in the risk averse culture of the status quo. To me, the real important thing is that A) we can fly our people into space, and B) there's more than one flight system, especially in terms of the launcher. I think it would be really smart to go with Boeing as option A, and then put SNC's spaceplane on top of an F9 for the second option (I am not certain, but I think CST-100 might be too heavy for F9 alone). That would ensure that we have a totally American sourced human launch system, and it would give SpaceX some experience working with human spaceflight, while giving them business to keep funding Dragon v2 for a future Commercial Crew contract. Sounds like a win-win-win to me! But, everything we say here is speculative and we'll just have to for MASA to finish waiting on whatever it is waiting on to really know who's going to get that flag from STS-135!

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/14/2014 03:21 CDT

@Ad Astra: "In actuality, 7/20 of Boeing's milestones were hardware tests compared to 4 for SpaceX (of which only 2 have been completed). Yes, SpaceX set ambitious milestones, but surprise surprise, they're late on delivery." Boeing's hardware tests have been on prototype chutes, and rockets that they want to convert from old designs to such that fits their capsule. As Derek notes, SpaceX has been more ambitious: they have flown a version of the capsule, they have tested their all their final engines, and when they field the pad abort their capsule goes into finalizing. Meanwhile Boeing will have to start bending their first plates. If "past performance is a strong indicator of future performance", no one would chose to use the AtlasV for manned crew. ULA was many years late for finishing the Emergency Detection System, didn't do it within the contract end at 2011, and in fact the Atlas is still not qualified for such purposes. "While NASA's goal is to get astronauts to orbit by 2015, ULA President and CEO Michael Gass has stated "I think we need to stretch our goals to have commercial crew service operating by 2014" and has committed ULA to meet that schedule.[25]" [ ] ULA plans to finish the rocket that Boeing and SNA needs before they start using it for Commercial Crew tests, at least 4 years late. But who knows if they will, since "past performance is a strong indicator of future performance". Meanwhile SpaceX F9 has been manrated for years now. (IIRC since 2010 or something such.) This is a slam dunk for SpaceX. "They are a known quantity with a known track record." They have a man-rated rocket, whereas the competitors have none yet. They have a basic capsule design that has been tested during ascent, ISS docking and descent, whereas the competitors have not. And they have tested all their final design rockets and chutes, whereas the competitors have not.

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/14/2014 03:27 CDT

Seeing how NASA thinks, I would bet they select SpaceX and SNC. That gets them two different launchers and two widely different craft designs. That means maximizing robustness and learning opportunities both.

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