Gap Seen in NASA Commercial Crew Funding

Artists conception of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft in orbit

SpaceFlightNow reports that there could be a funding gap upcoming in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV) programs:

Some companies could see a gap in funding between the first and second rounds of NASA’s procurement to help develop commercial crew transportation services for low Earth orbit, according to the agency’s top exploration official.

Doug Cooke, the associate administrator for NASA’s exploration directorate, said payments to the firms under the current CCDev procurement cycle are based on milestones. That means money from the last fiscal year, which concluded Sept. 30, will remain available through December, when the final milestones are scheduled, according to Cooke.

But the Oct. 1 notice of a second CCDev contest indicates the next awards will not come until March 2011. Proposals will be due approximately 45 days after the solicitation, according to NASA.

“There may be a little bit of a gap before we get more money out to industry,” Cooke told Spaceflight Now at the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague.

An interesting fact in the article is SpaceX Founder Elon Musk’s estimate for the company’s human spaceflight effort:

Musk forecasts expenditures between $800 million and $1 billion to outfit SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rockets for human flights. Some of that money could be deferred beyond 2013, the planning horizon in the current NASA bills.

During the debate over commercial space this year, Musk said that the main element that is missing for the Dragon capsule is the escape system. He used a $300 million cost figure to show that very little investment would be required to have human spaceflight capability. That figure clearly did not include the cost of test flights and other modifications.

The $300 million figure is apparently derived from an option in SpaceX’s COTS program that NASA has never exercised, according to Aviation Week:

The company had hoped NASA would exercise a $300-million addendum to its COTS contract for design work on the launch escape system, but with new players in the commercial crew transport game, that seems unlikely. Instead, SpaceX, Boeing and other firms are looking at the $6 billion the Obama administration wants to put in NASA’s budget over the next five years for fixed-price contracts to fly crew to the space station.

“We never exercised [the human-flight option known as COTS-D] because we didn’t have budget to do it,” says NASA’s associate administrator for exploration, Doug Cooke. “Our focus was on Constellation. Enough time has passed; there are new players and we’d probably run into protest issues if we didn’t run a competition. Competition tends to get you best value for the government.”

Read the full story in SpaceFlightNow.