Science and Exploration

NASA Selects SpaceX and Boeing to Ferry Astronauts to the Space Station

By Marc Boucher
September 16, 2014
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NASA Selects SpaceX and Boeing to Ferry Astronauts to the Space Station
Artist illustration of SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft (right) and Boeing CST 100 spacecraft (left). Credit: SpaceX/Boeing.

NASA has selected Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the Boeing Corporation to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station starting in 2017. The selection of SpaceX does not come as a surprise but the selection of Boeing is a minor surprise as Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), with their unique lifting body spacecraft, was a strong contender.

NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion in contracts with Boeing getting the larger share, $4.2 billion and SpaceX getting $2.6 billion for doing what appears the same work. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders was asked several times by reporters why the difference in the funding allocation but only said it was based on the price submitted by the companies in their proposals.

This would suggest SpaceX is capable of doing the same work as Boeing and still meet NASA’s stringent safety requirements but at a much cheaper rate. This could be an issue after this initial contract ends and any future commercial crew contract is awarded as SpaceX could have a significant price advantage.

Boeing and SpaceX are each required to complete five certification milestones:

1) Certification Baseline Review
2) Design Certification Review
3) Flight Test Readiness Review
4) Operational Readiness Review
5) Certification Review

As part of the certification process each company will need to complete a crewed demo flight currently scheduled for 2017. Boeing expects to complete its crewed demo flight in mid-2017. Sources tell me SpaceX plans on completing its demo flight earlier than Boeing. Each demo flight will have at least one NASA astronaut as part of the crew.

Along with the five NASA certification milestones each company has provided other milestones they intend to meet. Each company will be paid based on achieving the five certification milestones and other key milestones.

After the certification is complete NASA would allocate a minimum of 2 Post Certification Flights to each company and potentially an additional 4 flights each. All these flights are contained within this contract. Any future flights beyond these would be for a potential follow on contract. The Post Certification Flights would see the spacecraft crewed with four astronauts and cargo.

Four Years of Progress

While each spacecraft is berthed at the Space Station they will act as a lifeboat and must be able to stay on station for at least 180 days according to Lueders.

While Boeing issued a press release, SpaceX at the time of publication, had only released the following statement:

“SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us. We welcome today’s decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.”

SpaceX Dragon to Transport Astronauts to the International Space Station

Boeing’s press release included comments from John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager, Space Exploration “Boeing has been part of every American human space flight program, and we’re honored that NASA has chosen us to continue that legacy. The CST-100 offers NASA the most cost-effective, safe and innovative solution to U.S.-based access to low-Earth orbit.”

Boeing CST-100 to Transport Astronauts to the International Space Station

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in his opening remarks said “Today, with the selection of Boeing and SpaceX to be the first American companies to launch our astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA has set the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of human space flight.”

“It was not an easy choice, but it is the best choice for NASA and the nation. We received numerous proposals from companies throughout the aerospace industry. Highly qualified, American companies – united in their desire to return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil – competed to serve this nation and end our reliance on Russia. I applaud them all for their innovations, their hard work and their patriotism.”

Bolden went on to talk about the future beyond this contract and a future commercial space market where these providers and possibly others will venture beyond the Space Station to other “destinations” in Low Earth Orbit. This seemed to be a reference to companies like Bigelow Aerospace and their private space station aspirations.

Bolden said he was “giddy” with this announcement and an obviously pleased Bob Cabana, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director, said this announcement “validates everything we’ve been doing”, referring to KSC transitioning in part to a commercial spaceport.

Once the new taxi service is up and running, Lueders said this new capability will see Space Station science time double with additional crew members onboard.

For Sierra Nevada Corporation the road through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program doesn’t necessarily end today. NASA left door open for them and Blue Origin to continue working on their vehicles, just not with funds from NASA. And Lueders did say that they could bid on future commercial crew program contracts. They of course would have to meet NASA’s certification milestones.

While there’s no doubt Blue Origin will continue work on their spacecraft, it remains unclear if Sierra Nevada Corporation, which had been bringing on international partners to its Dream Chaser program, will continue development of their spacecraft. At press time they had not issued a statement.

NASA Commercial Crew Program News Conference


NASA Chooses American Companies to Transport U.S. Astronauts to International Space Station Selection, NASA

American Companies Selected to Return Astronaut Launches to American Soil, NASA

Boeing CST-100 Selected as Next American Spacecraft, Boeing

NASA Selects SpaceX to be Part of America’s Human Spaceflight Program, SpaceX

Science Committee Democrats Congratulate Boeing and SpaceX on NASA’s CCtCap Awards, Science Committee Democrats

Smith Congratulates NASA Commercial Space Awardees, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Aerojet Rocketdyne Propulsion to Fly on Commercial Space Transportation-100, Aerojet Rocketdyne

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation Commends NASA on CCtCap Awards, Commercial Spaceflight Federation

Coalition for Space Exploration Statement on NASA CCtCap Contract Awards, Coalition for Space Exploration

Statement by Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello in Response to NASA’s Commercial Crew Award Announcement, Space Florida

Space Foundation Congratulates NASA’s Commercial Crew Transport Choice, Space Foundation

NASA Selects Commercial Crew Winners – Foundation Dreams are Becoming America’s Space Vehicles!, Space Frontier Foundation

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