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NASA awards $1.1B in commercial spacecraft design contracts

Aug. 4, 2012 - 11:45AM   |  

NASA on Friday awarded $1.1 billion to three companies to complete designs of commercial spacecraft and rockets that could launch astronauts on orbital flights as soon as 2015.

The winners — The Boeing Co., SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. — each expect gradually to compete for contracts to fly NASA crews to the International Space Station by 2017.

The awards represent “important progress toward ending the outsourcing of American aerospace jobs and bringing them right back here to Florida and other states all across this country,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said at Kennedy Space Center.

Since the shuttle’s retirement last summer, the U.S. has relied on Russia to transport astronauts and supplies to the station.

Boeing and SpaceX won the largest amounts during the contracts’ 21-month base period: $460 million and $440 million, respectively. Sierra Nevada was awarded $212.5 million.

NASA said the awards give taxpayers “bang for the buck” by preserving competition to develop commercial systems and offer a variety of potential spacecraft and rockets for its crews.

“The portfolio that was selected is really all about diversity — diversity of launch vehicles and diversity of spacecraft,” said Ed Mango, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft and SpaceX’s Dragon are capsules, while Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is a winged mini-shuttle.

The CST-100 and Dream Chaser plan to launch atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, while Dragon would fly on SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

All plan to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

NASA selected the winners from seven proposals, three of which did not meet requirements: American Aerospace, Space Design, and Space Operations and Co.

Of the remaining four, ATK’s proposed Liberty system, which leveraged a first-stage solid rocket booster initially designed for NASA’s canceled Ares I rocket, was the loser.

The winners’ proposals met the development program’s objectives “in a much stronger fashion than ATK’s did,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate.

The new awards follow two earlier funding rounds supporting the development of privately operated space taxis, which have totaled $365 million since 2010.

The next round should enable Boeing and SpaceX to complete designs of fully integrated systems, including the spacecraft, rocket and ground and mission operations.

Sierra Nevada is not expected to advance quite as far, but officials said the Dream Chaser would get “substantially down the road to development.”

“I wouldn’t read too much into numbers,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s space systems division. “With this money plus what we’re contributing, it’s a very robust (amount).”

Working under non-traditional contracts called Space Act Agreements, the three companies will contribute unspecified amounts of their own money and will earn fixed payments from NASA only after achieving technical milestones.

Each company proposed additional optional milestones that would culminate in a crewed orbital demonstration flight.

Under “optimal” future funding conditions that were not disclosed, SpaceX said it could fly the mission by late 2015, while Boeing is targeting 2016. Sierra Nevada is evaluating its schedule based on the funding it received but previously also targeted 2016.

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