Commercial Crew Announcement this Week?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles now tells me that NASA is likely to inform the companies of their decision on Thursday morning. There is usually a lag between that action and a public press conference.

UPDATE: NASA will publicly announce the winners on Friday morning.

Charles Lurio of The Lurio Report has emailed me saying that he has heard from a very reliable source that NASA will announce the next round of commercial crew funding on Thursday or Friday. This is no independent verification of this report.

NASA is expected to make two full awards and one half award under Space Act Agreements to mature commercial launch systems and their spacecraft to transport crews to the International Space Station. This phase would be followed by one during which NASA would procure services using more rigorous Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contracting methods.

The competitors include:

  • ATK Liberty
  • Blue Origin Orbiter/ULA Atlas V
  • Boeing CST-100/ULA Atlas V
  • Excalibur Almaz
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser/ULA Atlas V
  • SpaceX Dragon/Falcon 9

I had heard from a source during the NewSpace 2012 Conference that NASA’s announcement had been delayed from July because White House officials are not happy with one of the awards. It’s not clear precisely what that means, but speculation has focused on the possibility of ATK receiving an award for its Ares I-derived Liberty system.

Such a decision would complete the near total revival of NASA’s Constellation program, which the Obama Administration had attempted to cancel outright. After a Congressional push back, work has continued on the other elements of  Constellation — the deep-space Orion capsule and the heavy-lift Space Launch System.

Meanwhile, ATK has used the work it did on Constellation’s Ares I as the basis of a commercial launcher. Liberty’s first stage is a five-segment solid rocket motor derived from the system used on the space shuttle. It is topped with an Ariane 5 first stage. The capsule is a composite version of the deep-space Orion spacecraft that subcontractor Lockheed Martin is building for NASA.

An ATK award would anger many in the “NewSpace” community, who do not see the company as being very commercial and not impressed with the Liberty system. They will attribute such a decision to ATK’s lobbying efforts rather than the merits of its proposal.

I caution that this only speculation; there has been no confirmation.  It’s simply a possibility at this point.

  • dr

    I don’t have any inside information on this, but it seems to me that another possibility might be that the White House might think that NASA was taking too much risk. An example of that situation might be one in which Blue Origin received a full award, where the White House would cite a low level of flight experience by that company as being a very high risk factor.
    We know that individuals have criticised Spacex for being new and inexperienced and there have been fights to keep Spacex as a government supplier. In my opinion Spacex are old masters in comparison to the level of experience that Blue Origin seem to have.
    I’m not trying to knock Blue Origin, I’m just saying that they are still a “new kid on the block” in space terms and so government officials might find working with them unnerving. Also, with Jeff Bezos background with Amazon, they will likely have a “Silicon Valley” type culture that Spacex also have, and that Mike Suffredini of the ISS programme admitted caused NASA some problems when NASA first tried to work with Spacex.
    In summary I’m just speculating that if NASA embrace companies that are “new” entrants to the industry too enthusiastically, the government could find itself on the receiving end of allegations that it is being reckless.

  • As a disclaimer, I am a supporter of ATK and the Liberty program. But, I am also a supporter of all the other companies that are bold enough to reach beyond “old space” by taking the challenge of doing space in a new way. YES, I am a supporter of “New Space.”

    Yes, I do have much more interest in Liberty because I believe the system actually has a above average chance of getting off the launch pad in a reasonable timeframe and with certain success. The hardware is flight proven (or a very close derivative of flight proven hardware) and the team leading the charge at ATK are veterans of spaceflight.

    Liberty’s first stage is a 5-segment version of the reliable and successful Space Shuttle SRB’s, it has been successfully tested, and the infrastructure to build them is already in place.

    Liberty’s second stage is the Ariane 5. Not a bad choice if you look at this vehicle’s flight record! The great part is, this is hardware that is already flying. The engine upgrade (for air start vs. ground start) is nearly complete and the fit for stacking the Ariane on top of the 5-segment first stage is within 3 inches. In other words…a near perfect match.

    Liberty’s crew capsule is similar to the Lockeheed Martin Orion capsule, but it is not the Orion. The current test article was actually built by ATK and the flight hardware will be as well. It is a composite shell that will be fitted with many “off-the-shelf” systems, built by partners with flight proven hardware and experience. This reduces cost and time to flight.

    Why should ATK not get an award from NASA to continue their efforts? Up to this point, they have invested their own money to get Liberty to this stage. Why would Liberty not be successful? It is proven systems, proven hardware providers, and a company committed to putting America back in space! Why not invest in something that has a meaningful probability of success?

    And why should ATK be treated differently than SpaceX, Dreamchaser, or ULA (you know the Boeing/Lockheed joint venture, companies part of the “old space” business)? Is it because they were partners on the now cancelled Constellation project? No, I think it comes down to politics.

    Politics, in my opinion, played a huge role in letting our nation’s space program become shell of what it once was. Don’t get me wrong, there are GREAT things going on at NASA and the ISS is a hugely successful program. But America puts people into space, America builds space stations, America sends people to the Moon…but not anymore. Russia does this…China does this! Let’s get the politicians out of the space business and let NASA, ATK, SpaceX, ULA, and the others decide on what it’s going to take to get America flying again.

    I am bothered by the statement that “An ATK award would anger many in the “NewSpace” community, who do not see the company as being very commercial and not impressed with the Liberty system. They will attribute such a decision to ATK’s lobbying efforts rather than the merits of its proposal.” If ATK is not a “New Space” company then neither is ULA, so why would this “New Space Community” not be protesting them as well? By the way, I consider myself part of that community and I am very impressed with Liberty! And don’t try to tell me ULA, SpaceX, and the others are NOT “lobbying” for their programs. Only ATK is doing that? I call BS!!! That argument sounds a little childish if you ask me. Maybe Liberty is seen as threat because it does have merit!

    I believe all the companies doing “New Space” should have a fair shot at funding, including Liberty. So I challenge all of you to take the time to learn about Liberty. See for yourself if Liberty has merit. You can talk directly with Kent Rominger (yes the Kent Rominger that has flown the shuttle 5 times and is the Liberty Program Manager). Join him for a Twitter #SpaceChat or Google Hangout. He will tell you all about the program. When was the last time someone from Boeing, Lockeheed, SpaceX, or Blue Orign took the time to talk with YOU about their projects? Kent and his team are all about “New Space” and about putting American astronauts back into orbit.

    I know many of you are like me and want to see rockets flying from Kennedy Space Center on a regular basis and you want see that sooner rather than later. For this to happen, we need to support all these companies, both those with origins in “old space” and in “new space.”

    If Liberty is not supported because of its “old space” roots or its relationship to the Constellation program, then you need to pull support for ULA and Orbital Sciences because they were “old space” too. This leaves you with SpaceX, which to be fair has proven themselves so far, and others like Blue Origin (which has not told us much of anything…why so secretive by the way?).

    Before we remove any players from the competition, let’s get them all through the next round. I think they all have merit on a certain level. Reducing the competition so early in the game makes me afraid we will end up back in the “old space” cycle.

    Again, someone show me why Liberty does not merit the same chance as ULA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, or Lockheed? I’m not sure you can.

    Doug, I would like to see you and Charles Lurio get on public call with Kent and his team to discuss Liberty. Let’s discuss in an open forum the merits and viability of the system. Then we can decide if the “New Space Community” is right when they say Liberty is not “very commercial” or that it is not very impressive.


  • cui bono

    It pains me to think which genuine, new, enthusiastic company will be sacrificed so that crony capitalists ATK can get on the bandwagon. Who let them in anyway – they have half a rocket and no capsule.

  • Anonymous

    In the beginning, there was Ares I. In its purest form back in 2006 it was not a bad vehicle. It was, on paper, a reliable vehicle designed to take the CEV to BLEO and beyond. But then a strange thing happened, actually not so strange when you use FAR contracting, requirements changed and the costs began to creep.

    Ares I ballooned into a $7 to $8 billion dollar fiasco. To this extent, those of us in the NewSpace community are right, Ares I was at fault. But I want to ask all of my NewSpace brothers and sisters at arms a simple question:

    Have you followed the money?

    How much did ATK get for their portion of Ares I? I know the answer and it isn’t $5 billion or $4 billion. No it is isn’t $3 billion or even $2 billion. ATK was awarded $1.7 billion in contracts of which ATK return ~$400 million when Ares Iy was cancelled. And that my friends is the truth. Now, we need to ask ourselves the next logical question, what did we get for our $1.3 billion (and change)?

    Ares 1x – ATK provided a standard 4 segment RSRM. The motor worked great but it didn’t have the kind of success we would have wanted.

    A new nozzle – The new nozzle was designed for more control with the Ares vehicle

    Three ground tests – DM1, DM2, DM3 all of which validated a new grain and pattern. All three ground tests validated the new technologies needed.

    Ares I was then canceled. And frankly, that is not a good thing, its a great thing. Not because I am a hater of ATK but because the costs were out of control and that thing was going no where quickly.

    So in essence we took the first stage of Ares I to CDR and said sorry, we have no second stage for you, no new avionics, and our CEV is too heavy and J-2X is so far behind that this, Ares I, is a lost cause.

    It was the right decision then and its the right decision now. However, I would submit that ATK wasn’t at fault for the Ares I debacle – Senior Managers at NASA were at fault along with their accomplice, the FAR. When you change requirements costs spiral. Costs spiral not only for the contractors and the subs, but also the management at NASA.

    So ATK was left holding a RSRM that could produce about 3.5 million pounds of thrust. What would you do?

    The did something very commercial like and began to look at their booster differently. How much savings could they pass on to the American Taxpayer if they didn’t have to follow NASA and the FAR? Here is your answer:

    From over 1,000 NASA and FAR requirements to under 100 ATK requirements.

    There is a lot more to ATK, Ares I, and Liberty than what we in the NewSpace community want to acknoledge. Moreover, since it is a real PITA to find the data, it is easier to just shred ATK… and I did.

    All I am saying is that those of you who want to shred ATK, follow the money and see who was really paid what. Intellectual honesty demands it. The truth is that behind SpaceX, Liberty is the next best thing. It would not be tragic or cataclysmic if ATK got an award as some people would have you believe. It would be a good thing.

    FULL DISCLOSURE – ATK Pays me. They pay me absolutely NOTHING. Not a dime. Not a dinner. No free trips to Mexico. No special deals.

    It took me months of going through budgets and emails to try to add all this stuff up. The math doesn’t lie. Yes Ares I was a fiscal black hole, but you are lying to yourself if you think ATK was the reason behind it.

    Andrew Gasser
    TEA Party in Space

  • @Cui bono – We have a composite crew capsule we built in 2009 go to for more information.

  • If NASA is smart, it will wait until after the MSL Mars Lander results on August 6th before it announces the CCDEV 3 winners.

    Announcing the CCDEV 3 winners should be good news that will enhance NASA’s standing whatever outcome the MSL Mars lander has.

  • James

    Nice try ATK PR people. Nice try…

  • There is no try James. Those are the facts coming from NASA budgets which you can FOIA yourself.

    Ares I does deserve scorn for mis-management and lousy accounting. You can blame NASA. You can blame the FAR. You can try to blame ATK… but if you honestly look at the numbers, you find out that you are incorrect.

    Andrew Gasser
    TEA Party in Space

  • Personally, I’ve got my fingers crossed for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. Let’s see now, Boeing, the designer of the CST-100, has already been around for about 100 years now… well Sierra Nevada’s been around for about half that long; so no one can exactly accuse them of being neophytes in this industry. The Dream Chaser is a relatively mature concept, dating back to the HL-20 space plane program under development at NASA Langley back in the 90‘s, which in turn was derived from the old Soviet BOR-4 lifting body design. So that’s a plus both in terms of company resources and staying power and in maturity of design.

    I’m not sure what the turnaround time for the Dream Chaser will be but we’re talking about a reusable vehicle capable of returning from space and then touching down on the runway of just about any modern airport in the world. In terms of style points alone that’s a solid 10. The pure visceral thrill of seeing Dream Chaser set down at Denver International, or Kennedy, or LAX, just for the sheer publicity of it, promises a potential visual spectacle that none of the other contenders can presently offer, and the powers-that-be at NASA would do well to consider such a scenario just for the PR value alone. A Reusable Spaceplane/Goodwill Ambassador that comes in both a crewed and a cargo version; the potential of that combination could give even the legacy of the Space Shuttle a good run for its money.

    I’m a big fan of SpaceX and would definitely like to see them get selected as well. Can you imagine how the whole world is going to flip out the first time a Dragon capsule reenters from outer space to set back down on earth under full propulsive power? It will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. Except in the movies. But CCiCap or otherwise, Elon Musk has plans for going to Mars, and with a steadily growing $3 billion plus launch manifest I don’t think he’s going to let anything deter him. If SpaceX doesn’t get an award it will be very disappointing, but ultimately I don’t think it will prevent them from accomplishing their long range goals.

    Aaron and Andrew make very compelling arguments for the Liberty system from ATK. The hardware’s been developed, the money’s been spent; in a sense it’s about high time that the American taxpayer got some sort of return on this multi-billion dollar investment. Also the cargo plus crew combination is a very attractive option. If it can lessen the gap by a significant degree at a competitive price how can you logically argue against it?

    And as I’ve already said, Boeing’s been around forever. Their CST-100 mated to an Atlas V looks like a more than capable combination.

    I think we’re all pulling for Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, but it’s pretty hard to evaluate their efforts when we hear so little about what they’re doing.

    Excalibur Almaz? Soviet-era hardware? Good luck with that one guys. Good luck on some day reaching that Lagrange Point. Who knows? If the VC markets eventually open up then anything is possible.

    Ron Atkins
    The NewSpace Daily

  • Andrew Gasser, the US taxpayers get a whole lot better deal from SpaceX than ATK. 1.3 gigabucks for a sub-orbital flight test and some static firings!?

    For that level of funding SpaceX developed a family of rockets, a spacecraft, and has successfully slung weight to and from ISS. ATK has a paper stack with no sustainable commercial operation to show for that gigabuck “investment”. If ATK were serious about commercial space then they would already be flying demo flights and filling their manifest with customers other than NASA.

    NASA Monopsony = Old Space

    Am I feeding a troll?

  • mlaboy

    Looks like ATK loses out, at least with Liberty anyway…It’s SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada… Let the whining begin.