- One company proposed to continue work on a project that NASA has already funded to human-rate a pair of highly-reliable rockets that at least three companies want to use to launch their commercial spacecraft.
- The other bidder wanted funds to build a new new booster that has never flown and which no one had agreed to use.
So, which one did NASA fund?
Confused? You’re not the only one. Welcome to the wonderful world of NASA contract awards.
The companies involved were ATK, which proposed its new Liberty rocket, and United Launch Alliance, which is developing technologies to human rate its existing Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. Both came up with big goose eggs in the second round of CCDev in which NASA awarded $269.3 million to four companies developing spacecraft and rockets to carry astronaut into low Earth orbit.
Part of the reason seems to have little to do with the relative quality of the proposals, as Philip McAlister, acting director of Commercial Spaceflight Development for NASA, explained in his Selection Statement:
“I weighted spacecraft proposals slightly higher than those for launch vehicles. Within the U.S. industrial base, there is considerable launch vehicle development expertise and experience, as many companies have successfully developed new launch vehicles over the last few decades. In contrast, no U.S. company has successfully developed a crew-carrying spacecraft in over thirty years. Thus, I considered that development of spacecraft was more important in accelerating development of a commercial CTS.”
This emphasis was seen in the awards. Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation received funds to develop their human vehicles. SpaceX received human rate its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, the development of which NASA has been funding under the COTS program. Blue Origin received money to develop a biconic capsule and reusable rocket, although the funds will be largely spent on spacecraft work. Proposals focused solely on rocket development received nothing in this round.
Despite this, it’s likely that at least one of these rocket projects will be funded next year under CCDev 3. NASA has said it wants to develop multiple rockets so it’s not dependent upon only one provider, and the Falcon 9 has had only two flights thus far. Thus, the space agency needs to fund another rocket.
So, what are the odds for the ATK and ULA proposals should they decide to resubmit them? The Selection Statement provides candid insights into the strengths and weaknesses of each program, revealing surprising strengths in ATK’s plan and some weaknesses in ULA’s project.
|Very High Level of Confidence|
|High Level of Confidence|
|Moderate Level of Confidence|
|Low Level of Confidence|
|Very Low Level of Confidence|
ATK’s proposal rated higher on both Technical Approach and Business Information, receiving the second highest rating (Green – High Level of Confidence) possible on NASA’s color-coded rating system. ULA, which had received $6.7 million to develop its system under CCDev 1, received White ratings (Moderate Level of Confidence) in both categories.
The relatively low ratings for ULA are a bit surprising. In touting their proposal, company officials have said they have been studying how to human-rate their boosters for many years in relation to NASA and private spaceflight projects that were either canceled or have yet to come to fruition. One would think that the technical aspects and business information would have been stronger.
Many observers expected ULA to receive money in this round to continue work that NASA funded under CCDev 1. In addition, at least four commercial crew providers competing for CCDev 2 funding had indicated they would launch their vehicles on Atlas V rockets — at least initially. (However, several of them also said they are designing their spacecraft for multiple rockets.) Press reports indicated that ULA sought $40 million in CCDev 2 funding.
According to McAlister’s Selection Statement, NASA’s reviewers found the following strengths in ULA’s proposal:
- Use of existing flight proven vehicles and infrastructure
- adaptable emergency detection system that could be used on different launchers and interfaced with a range of spacecraft
- strong performance capability for crew abort scenarios
- an effective and integrated S&MA organizational structure.
- suitability to deliver proposed capabilities
- strong, highly experienced management team
- facilities needed for CCDev 2 already in place
- experienced and knowledgeable suppliers.
The reviewers also found the following weaknesses:
- a lack of definition of critical path to an initial launch capability and correlation to CCDev 2 efforts
- failure to adequately describe the association of standard S&MA processes with proposed performance milestones or major design milestones.
- failure to adequately describe the commercial market(s) to which it will provide products and services and the plan for marketing and selling company products and services.
McAlister also wrote that funding ULA wouldn’t have accelerated NASA’s commercial crew efforts.
“However, ULA’s work content on their existing launch vehicles was not on the critical path for any CTS systems. Thus, it did not accelerate the availability of U.S. CTS capabilities which was a primary goal of the Announcement. In addition, ULA did not adequately describe the commercial market(s) to which it will provide products and services and the plan for marketing and selling company products and services, all key business considerations. Thus, ULA’s proposal was not selected.”
This is a somewhat puzzling statement. Both Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin, which both received CCDev 2 funding, have stated that they want to use ULA’s Atlas V rocket to launch their crew vehicles. Blue Origin would eventually shift to its own reusable launcher at a future date. Boeing, which also received CCDev 2 funds, has also publicly talked about using Atlas V to launch its CST-100 spacecraft, although the vehicle is also being designed for multiple launchers.
However, when you look closely at the CCDev 2 agreements from Blue Origin and Boeing, one finds that ULA are not formally listed as partners in either one.Â In public, Boeing officials appear to have backed away a bit from the Atlas V, saying they are considering multiple rockets and will announce a decision shortly.
ATK’s Liberty rocket is composed of a first stage derived from the canceled shuttle-derived Ares I booster and the second stage of Europe’s Ariane 5. Although these technologies have excellent flight heritages, there was one overriding problem: no one had committed to flying on the rocket.
“This was a significant concern on my part,” McAllister wrote, “as NASA could fund the Liberty all the way through the development phase and there would be the possibility that no spacecraft developer would select that launch vehicle as part of its CTS design, thereby not advancing an orbital CTS concept which was the key goal of the Announcement.”
The lack of spacecraft meant that the proposal was weak in key technical areas.
“Also, ATK did not provide sufficient details to assess launch vehicle environments on their proposed upper stage or at the crewed spacecraft interface. These environments include areas like coupled loads, staging environments and abort scenarios. Although ATK provided a sold technical approach, their details on environments did not provide me with enough confidence in accelerating this launch vehicle for use with the variety of different crew spacecraft. I felt it would be a more effective use of the limited CCDev 2 funds to select an additional spacecraft concept in the portfolio. For these reasons, ATK was not selected.”
Ultimately, it’s likely that McAlister believes that NASA could wait in funding rocket proposals until the crew vehicles were further along without adversely affecting the overall schedule. In the meantime, ULA and ATK could strengthen their proposals for the CCDev 3 round. Assuming that both companies compete next year, what are the chances they will get funded?
My best guess is that ULA will eventually receive additional funding. Atlas V and Delta IV are the only boosters in the U.S. inventory with enough flights to adequately gauge their reliability. Both rockets can be human-rated using a common emergency detection system. Several funded companies want to use the Atlas V for their spacecraft. It’s also possible that NASA’s Orion vehicle will use the Delta IV for some launches. ULA is a big company that is not going away anytime soon. So, if NASA wants redundant alternatives to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, then funding ULA’s proposal is probably a safe bet.
Although ATK’s Liberty rocket received high marks, there are still many unanswered questions about the proposal, least of which is whether anyone will sign up to use it. Choosing Liberty would be a difficult decision for producers of crew vehicles because NASA has already rejected the proposal once and with prospects under CCDev 3 being uncertain. The other key issue is how quickly a new rocket with no flight history could be built, tested and certified for human crews. With the U.S. already facing a long gap in flights after the space shuttle retires later this year, time is of the essence.
A wild card in all this is Blue Origin’s planned reusable launch system. The company is very secretive, so it’s unclear just how far along the program is at the moment or how quickly it could come online. Blue Origin’s preference for using Atlas V initially indicates that development could take some time. But, it remains possible that Blue Origin will propose a major development effort for its rocket project for CCDev 3.