NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, announces the agency’s selection of Boeing and SpaceX for CCtCap, as former astronaut Bob Cabana, looks on at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 16, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Jan 19, 2015 NASA hopeful of 2017 launch for space taxis

Sen—It’s been a tough slog for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) aimed at building the first private orbital manned spaceships the world has ever seen. Despite the fact that the need and the urgency have been quite evident to those interested in advancing human spaceflight and exploration, convincing the US Congress to fund the program has been no easy task and only partially successful.

Unfortunately, CCP has been starved for funding since the idea of developing ‘space taxis’  as a public-private partnership was first proposed by the Obama Administration in 2010. 

The sparse yearly budgets since then actually forced NASA to slow the development and resulted in a lengthy postponement of NASA’s hopes and plans for a first manned launch from 2015 to 2017, and perhaps even later.

But a corner may have been turned relating to the budget and contract awards. And launch prospects are finally brighter based on a new interview by Sen with the NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. 

With the dawn of a new year, I asked Administrator Bolden what was his assessment on the outlook for commercial crew in 2015 and manned launches beyond in 2017?

“I’m optimistic. The Congress is coming up in their level of support,” Bolden replied.

The situated finally began looking up for CCP following NASA’s winnowing down of the potential field of competitors to build the crew vehicle to just two. In September 2014, Administrator Bolden announced that Boeing and SpaceX had won the high stakes competition to construct private ‘space taxis’ designed to ferry humans to the ISS.

Bolden said NASA was awarding contracts valued at $4.2 Billion and $2.6 Billion to Boeing and SpaceX respectively to manufacture the CST-100 and Dragon V2 manned spaceships under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of NASA’s CCP effort.

But immediately following the award it was nearly derailed when the third competitor, Sierra Nevada Corp. challenged the lack of an award to their proposed Dream Chaser mini-shuttle and filed a legal protest with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which temporarily stopped the program’s advancement and again threatened the 2017 crewed launch date.

NASA eventually directed a restart to the crew contract work based on another legal finding, but the threat was still present and further delays were possible.

On Jan. 5, 2015, the GAO issued a ruling denying the protest filed by Sierra Nevada challenging the award of contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. 

In the wake of the GAO decision, I asked Administrator Bolden for his reaction to the good news about the GAO ruling and NASA’s ability to move forward?

"Yes. We were actually moving forward all along. That’s because we got the judgment from the courts that we could proceed,” Bolden explained.

What is the status of the work by Boeing and SpaceX? 

“We are really continuing with the progress we are making.”  

NASA’s need for a new manned space vehicle and having it ready for flight as quick as possible has been obvious to anyone concerned with maintaining US leadership and the capability to launch humans into space and low Earth orbit to keep crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The goal of the commercial crew vehicles is maintaining the stations viability and continued use as a unique orbiting microgravity laboratory, especially after the approval to continue operating it from 2020 to at least 2024.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in July 2011 following wheel stop on the STS-135 mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis commanded by astronaut Chris Ferguson, every American space faring astronaut has been forced to hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz manned capsules.

But making progress and ending the US sole source reliance on Russia depends on having a sufficient budget. Lack of support from Congress in the past few years has already significantly delayed the first crew launch.

“The original plan was to conduct both the unmanned and manned CST-100 test flights in 2015,” said Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations. 

“The President's funding requests for the past few years were roughly about $800 million. Only about half that was approved. So it was significantly less than the request.”  

“Both the unmanned and manned flights are now a full year and a half later.” Ferguson told me.

For the Fiscal 2015 Year budget, Congress finally came close to approving the Obama Administration's request by agreeing to $805 Million out of the $848 Million requested.

I asked Bolden about the prospects for a 2017 crewed launch date.

“I am very hopeful that we are still going to be to make 2017 with the first flights,” Bolden said.

And that’s even with the budget approved for this year for Fiscal 2015?

“Yes. With the budget we got this year. We need more. And that’s always the case.”

Is the Congress more supportive?

“Yes, I’m optimistic. The Congress is coming up in their level of funding for it and their enthusiasm. So that is what’s really important.”  

“So, I’m very hopeful on that,” Bolden declared. 

The launches of the CST-100 and Dragon V2 can’t come soon enough for many reasons. 

For one, the cost for those highly sought after and very limited number of Soyuz capsule seats has escalated. Under the latest contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, NASA must pay in excess of $70 million per seat whereas at the dawn of the millennium the cost was roughly $20 million or so for space tourists like Dennis Tito.

The self imposed lack of competition has driven the costs up several fold.

Furthermore, relying on a single bus to orbit and back is unwise. If the last bus goes off track, the station would have to be abandoned.  

This past week’s evacuation of the space station crew from the US segment to the Russian segment due to a feared leak of toxic ammonia reinforces the need for multiple paths up and down in case of unforeseen emergencies.

And the fastest and most economical independent second path to get US and ISS partner astronauts back to space is through NASA’s commercial crew program from US soil.

Let’s hope the US President and US Congress agree as they get set to propose the next NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2016 in just a few weeks!

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U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, left, and former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, who now oversees Boeing's CST-100 commercial spacecraft program, inside a capsule mock-up. Image credit: Boeing

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SpaceX Dragon V2 crew capsule unveiled in 2014. Image credit: SpaceX