NASA’s CCDev Program: Where Things Stand

Boeing's proposed commercial capsule.
Artist's conception of Boeing's commercial crew module. (Credit: Boeing)

With Boeing’s selection of Atlas V to launch its CST-100 commercial crew vehicle, the picture relating to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program has become a bit clearer. Without any delay, let’s dive into it.

A Big Win for Big Rocket

For an “OldSpace” rocket company under threat from new competition, United Launch Alliance (ULA) is doing pretty well here. Companies building three of the four human spacecraft that NASA is funding under CCDev 2 have selected the Atlas V as their launch vehicle. These vehicles include Boeing’s CST-100, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, and Blue Origin’s orbital vehicle. The other company, SpaceX, has its own Falcon 9 rocket for the spacecraft it is building.

Atlas V’s popularity among crew providers makes it highly likely that ULA will receive funding under CCDev 3 to human-rate the booster. Although Atlas V is more expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it has been built to exacting standards and has an excellent flight record. And NASA wants multiple commercial systems to boot.

NASA funded ULA to do initial human-rating work on the Atlas V under CCDev 1. (The company received no funding under CCDev 2, which focused entirely upon spacecraft development.) ULA is currently working with NASA under an unfunded Space Act Agreement to determine how human rating standards can be applied to the rocket. By the time NASA awards contracts next year, ULA should have answers to any technical questions NASA has about flying humans on the rocket.

Boeing’s selection of Atlas V also strengthens ULA’s business case. In addition to sending NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Boeing also has a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to launch astronauts to private space stations beginning in the middle of the decade. The existence of a viable, commercial market to supplement ISS flights is something NASA will look favorably upon.

In choosing Atlas V, Boeing gets a highly-reliable rocket that NASA is likely to fund in future CCDev rounds. So, its already strong commercial crew effort has been strengthened. Of course, by helping to make Atlas V more viable, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada also benefit because they have chosen the Atlas V as well.

There are political benefits to this selection. The Atlas V is assembled in Decatur, Ala., which is represented by Republican Sen. Richard Shelby.  With NASA committed to building a shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle that will save jobs in nearby Huntsville, it could be that Shelby and other prominent commercial space critics will see the benefits of providing NASA with sufficient funds to do CCDev properly. This might be a forlorn hope, but stranger things have happened.

The only real concern involves the Atlas V’s Russian-built first-stage RD-180 engine. This makes the rocket vulnerable to supply disruptions that could result from manufacturing problems or any rupture in Russo-American relations. ULA’s George Sowers said during the teleconference today that ULA has no plans to replace the RD-180 engine, or to begin domestic production as it could under the existing licensing agreement. He added that NASA does not seem to have a problem with that approach.

And the Rest….

NASA wants to fly commercially on at least two spacecraft and on multiple launch vehicles. With ULA in the pole position, the choice for other rockets comes down to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and ATK’s Liberty. My best guess is that the bird will fly while freedom will remain grounded.

Falcon 9 has already flown twice, once with a Dragon capsule that was recovered safely from the ocean under NASA’s COTS program. By the times humans fly aboard Dragon, it will already have been tested in a robotic configuration a number of times. SpaceX’s flight experience, and the fact that NASA is funding its work under CCDev and COTS, give the company a leg up for future funding.

Meanwhile, ATK is in the same position it was in yesterday: it has a rocket without a flight record that no one has signed up to use. These were the two key concerns that NASA had in its CCDev 2 evaluation of ATK’s plan, which otherwise received high marks. ATK needs to reverse this situation to have any chance of winning CCDev funding.

The Path Ahead

NASA’s choice of rockets is fairly clear. On the spacecraft side, it’s unlikely the space agency will be able to continue funding all four systems it is supporting under CCDev 2. NASA will need to make some difficult choices in the years ahead. And the companies that don’t receive funding will need to decide whether they can continue the programs on their own dime.

The wildcard is money. The proposed House budget freezes CCDev funding at $312 million for the next fiscal year, much less than the $850 million requested by the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, the House gave nearly 10 times more to the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Unless the House proposal is defeated, the commercial crew effort will slip significantly and the gap in human spaceflight will stretch out even further.  And that means paying the Russians an ever increasing amount for access to the International Space Station.