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Sierra Nevada Corporation s Dream Chaser (artist illustration). Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser (artist illustration). Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

NASA's commercial spaceflight strategy

Sen— As the space shuttles take their place in museums, having retired from service in 2011, what is NASA's strategy for the future of spaceflight?

NASA wants "routine access" for both cargo and crew to the space station, and has also set its sights on deep space exploration for the longer term.

To achieve these objectives NASA is outsourcing low-Earth orbit spaceflight to the commercial sector whilst developing its own capabilities for travel beyond low-Earth orbit.

Low-Earth orbit: developing a commercial space industry

NASA's outsourcing programme to the commercial sector is managed by the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office - dubbed 'C3PO'. C3PO, based at NASA's Johnson Space Center, has the goal of creating a successful commercial space industry in the U.S. capable of providing safe, reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit. NASA's objective, in helping to create a private space economy, is that as well as being used by the government the services will be used by other customers.

C3PO divides the program into crew and cargo.

Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)
Cargo is covered by the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program which began in 2006. The programme is designed to cover low-Earth Orbit missions, primarily those to the International Space Station.

The companies selected by NASA are provided with direction and funding but are responsible for innovation and development. The companies benefit from NASA funding and contracts. As commercial businesses those provided with COTS agreements are of course able to sell their services to others, such as contracts to launch satellites or space tourism services. NASA believes that buying supply services from the commercial sector will be cheaper than doing it themselves.  

NASA has so far allocated $800m for COTS, paid in increments as the selected companies reach development milestones.

The COTS programme is divided into development and demonstration (phase 1) and ISS commercial resupply services (phase 2).

The companies awarded contracts under COTS so far are Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which was selected in 2006, and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) which was selected in 2008. Another company, Rocketplane-Kistler (RpK), had also been selected in 2006 but the agreement with RpK was later terminated after it failed to complete financial and technical milestones. A second competition was held to select a new funded commercial partner which resulted in the selection of Orbital in February 2008.

In December 2008 both SpaceX and Orbital were awarded Commercial Resupply Services contracts by NASA. SpaceX's contract is for up to 12 cargo supply missions, Orbital for up to 8.

SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, achieved the first spaceflight under the COTS programme in December 2010 and became the first private company in history to send a spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth. SpaceX's second demonstration flight to the space station is scheduled to launch on May 22, 2012.

The company's rocket is the Falcon 9, the spacecraft is called Dragon. The demonstration flight is unmanned and designed to show that Dragon can safely deliver cargo to the space station. Provided the second demonstration flight meets with NASA's approval, SpaceX will prepare to fulfil its obligations under its Commercial Resupply Service contract to provide 12 cargo supply missions to the space station.

Orbital Sciences, established in 1982 and quoted on the New York Stock Exchange, is developing the Antares launch rocket, the Cygnus spacecraft and pressurized cargo modules.

Orbital is planning its first COTS test flight in the third quarter of 2012 followed by a demonstration flight to the ISS in the final quarter of 2012. Providing the demonstration flights meet with NASA's approval, Orbital anticipates making the first of 8 supply trips to the ISS in the first quarter of 2013.

The Antares launch vehicle can carry approximately 6 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, while the Cygnus spacecraft will be capable of delivering 2.7 tonnes of pressurized cargo to the space station.

According to NASA, COTS is "helping spur the innovation and development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles from commercial industry, creating a new way of delivering cargo to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS)."

Commercial Crew Development
Human spaceflight development is organised by the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Companies awarded contracts under the Commercial Crew Development programme include: Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, United Launch Alliance and Excalibur Almaz.

Blue Origin, set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is focussing on development of Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for both sub-orbital and orbital spaceflight. Its requirements for NASA are to develop a spacecraft that can carry up to 7 astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the space station. In April 2012 Blue Origin announced that it had successfully tested the design of its next generation space vehicle, completing a series of wind tunnel tests to refine the aerodynamics of the biconic shaped craft.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing its spacecraft called Dream Chaser. The Dream Chaser Space System (DCSS)  is being designed to ferry up to 7 astronauts to and from the ISS. The Dream Chaser craft could launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and the two companies are evaluating how they could work together. 

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is developing an Emergency Detection System which would be needed to human rate launch vehicles of other providers. ULA is also developing its Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles and technologies as part of the drive to support NASA and its other partners with delivering astronauts to the ISS.

Paragon Space Development Corporation (Paragon) is a specialist in environmental control and life support systems including for spacecraft. The company has already completed development of its "Commercial Crew Transport-Air Revitalization System (CCT-ARS)" for NASA under its CCDev contract. CCT-ARS provides seven life support functions and has been specifically designed for the commercial crew transportation market. Paragon is also working with SpaceX in the areas of thermal and environmental control for the Dragon spacecraft.

Excalibur Almaz, which has an unfunded Space Act Agreement, completed CCDev Round 2 milestones in June 2012.

Boeing is developing the Crew Space Transportation CST-100 spacecraft for transporting people into space. As previously reported by Sen, the CST-100 has passed two major milestones in its development.

Boeing's craft will be launched aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket. To widen its commercial appeal, the CST-100 will be compatible with other launch systems, including the Delta IV and Falcon 9.

It is expected that the CST-100 will begin flight tests in 2015 and enter commercial service with a flight to the ISS in 2016.

C3PO uses NASA’s Space Act authority to establish industry agreements and provide the legal flexibility necessary for the program. These agreements are known as Space Act Agreements (SAAs). In addition to "funded" SAAs NASA has provided some unfunded SAAs to provide technical assistance to companies developing innovative space travel concepts of interest to NASA.

Beyond low Earth orbit

With commercial companies provide transport to and from the space station, NASA is developing its own capabilities to go beyond low Earth orbit. The Space Launch System (SLS) program will develop the heavy lift vehicle that will launch the crew vehicle, other modules and cargo for these missions.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

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