NASA, Partners Provide Updates on Commercial Crew

commercial_crew_earthDuring last week’s Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, Calif., a panel of NASA and private sector partners gathered to discuss their progress on returning U.S. crew launches to American soil.

Below is a summary of their comments that provides some insights into where each partner is in development and what lies ahead for the rest of the year.

NASA is expected to award the next round of commercial crew contracts later this year.


Phil McAlister (Moderator)
Director, Commercial Spaceflight

Kathy Lueders
Acting Program Manager, Commercial Crew Program

Dr Garrett Reisman
DragonRider Project Manager

John Curry
Senior Director and Dream Chaser Co-Program Manager
Sierra Nevada Corporation

Christopher Ferguson
Director of Crew and Mission Operations, CST-100


NASA Commercial Crew

Kathy Lueders

  • In response to question, Lueders says NASA is looking at options of flying commercial crew missions to the International Space Station more than the nominal twice per year
  • Commercial crew effort now includes more than 100 providers in 34 states

SpaceX DragonRider

SpaceX Dragon abort test article. (Credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX Dragon abort test article. (Credit: SpaceX)

Garrett Reisman

  • Only 4 milestones left in SpaceX’s CCiCap award, “but they’re big ones”
  • 4 milestones include: integrated critical design review, pad abort test, in-flight abort test, Dragon primary structures qualification
  • The good news is once we get these things done, we’re almost there
  • We are focused on completing the design, safety, reducing risks and preparing for Dragon and Falcon 9 certification
  • Goal is to have Americans being launched to space once again on American rockets and end reliance on Russian Soyuz transports
  • In the long term, there could be a 10 times increase in commercial crew demand
  • Falcon Heavy will be at Vandenberg Air Force base by end of 2014, with the first test launch in early 2015
  • Falcon Heavy will carry four times the payload of Falcon 9 to both low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit
  • SpaceX now closer to 4,000 employees now
  • Commercial crew worked well because the model allowed for rapid decision making. NASA got a lot of value for investment
  • Very excited about NASA’s efforts to commercial cargo/crew model for deep space exploration

Boeing CST-100

Christopher Ferguson

  • Boeing has three milestones to meet by August under this round of the commercial crew program, including an integrated Critical Design Review scheduled for July
  • CST-100 vehicle designed for repeated reuse
  • Need more destinations to make crew services feasible
  • People won’t want to just orbit for a few days in small craft
  • Boeing has a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing private space stations
  • Boeing has some “wonderful ideas” for a permanent name for CST-100, which is an abbreviation for Crew Space Transportation
  • Won’t rename CST-100 vehicle until after the next round of commercial crew awards, which is expected later this year
  • Boeing, NASA and Space Florida planning a ceremony in early June for the hand-over of the former Orbital Processing Facility 3 at the Kennedy Space Center for use in assembly CST-100 vehicles
  • Boeing is interested in using CST-100 vehicle for cargo delivery runs in the future
  • Ferguson, a former space shuttle astronaut, was initially skeptical of commercial crew but has been quite amazed by what Boeing has been able to accomplish with a limited budget
  • Ferguson noted that Friday, April 4 marked the 1,000th day since the launch of the last U.S. human space mission from American soil – the STS-135 space shuttle mission that he commanded

Sierra Nevada Corporation

Dream Chaser shuttle. (Credit: NASA)
Dream Chaser shuttle. (Credit: NASA)

John Curry

  • Dream Chaser engineering test article will be used for further test flights in the Fall
  • Dream Chaser test flights in Fall will be done with the avionics for the orbital vehicle installed
  • Significantly upgraded Dream Chaser systems, thermal protection to avoid Columbia accident
  • Unmanned Dream Chaser orbital flight scheduled for November 2016
  • SNC is interested in using Dream Chaser for cargo flights to the International Space Station
  • Engine work with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane is going very well
  • SpaceShipTwo engine is a commercial “spin in” for Dream Chaser, which uses two smaller hybrid motors
  • Expects SpaceShipTwo to enter commercial service in the next year or so

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  • Dennis

    Tbh… no information they let out is really new. Practically every bit has been seen before recently.

    Except maybe that Ferguson comment where he is amazed that Boeing could actually built something without big fat cost+ contracts under their bums 😛

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Very excited about NASA’s efforts to commercial cargo/crew model for deep space exploration”

    Umm, what is this a reference to? didn’t know NASA had any efforts toward commercial cargo/crew for “deep space exploration”. Do they know something we don’t?.

  • Hug Doug

    i think they mean that NASA’s efforts in developing commercial cargo/crew will enable them (NASA) to actually do deep space exploration.

  • Tonya

    I wouldn’t put any money on that being what SpaceX meant.

  • Hug Doug

    …. right. sure it wasn’t. because that’s totally not what the commercial cargo/crew program isn’t for. lol

  • Tonya

    I expect the two NASA people on the panel were also amused. Everyone but NASA has a policy for NASA these days, no reason SpaceX shouldn’t join in the fun of making things up!

  • Hug Doug

    Uh huh. you are aware that the idea behind the commercial cargo and crew programs is that NASA doesn’t have to do those things and they can then focus on deep space exploration, right?

  • Tonya

    You think a SpaceX rep is excited because they’re enabling NASA to work on Orion/SLS?

    Oh honey, I admire your trust in human nature, but if you plan to buy a used car anytime soon, let your wife do the talking.

  • Hug Doug

    absolutely. that’s how SpaceX pays the bills. trust in human nature has nothing to do with it, other than perhaps greed.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Well I guess NASA doesn’t have to run a full program developing leo crew vehicles so that may be part of what SpaceX means.
    Perhaps also SpaceX reckons that they’ll have an equivalent beo vehicle as a follow-on from DragonCrew as part of their DragonRider Program. NASA can then buy that service and that the service will be available before SLS/Orion is human flight ready.
    Alll speculation really however SpaceX have not been keeping their multi-planetary plans secret.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Well they need to since NASA’s being pulled from pillar to post by the pollies. What have we got in terms of medium term plans:
    Commercial Crew – 3 companies on budget, on schedule (given the reduced funding by Congress, down 62% on requests over the program)
    SLS – another not needed launch vehicle
    Orion – an overweight Apollo re-run (no indigenous SM)
    ARM – not funded or developed
    Mars fly-by – not funded or developed
    JWST – over-budget, over-shedule
    2 cast-off telescopes – not funded or developed.
    Curiosity 2 – not funded or developed.
    Europa – not funded or developed
    Errrrr – crap, that’s it ’cause there’s no money for anything else.

  • Robert Gishubl

    At the moment Dragon has some BEO capability better than Orion its disadvantages are insignificant for any BEO mission except a Moon fly by. To undertake BEO missions Dragon needs a Habitat and propulsion/service module. In reality Orion is not capable of BEO (except Apollo re-run) without a habitat and service module as well giving it no substantial benefit over Dragon. The slightly better shielding, life support and space can be made up for with a slightly larger Habitat for Dragon vs Orion. The cost savings mean you could probably send 2 Dragons with 2 linked habitats for 1 Orion mission making the Dragon BEO configuration much more robust and suitable for longer BEO missions.
    Maybe SpaceX are excited that NASA has started looking at private options for moon landers so is excited about that, or at least the implication that private space is not exclusively limited to LEO.

  • windbourne

    “Need more destinations to make crew services feasible”

    BY FAR, THAT is the most intelligent and thought out statement said here.
    The fact is, that the ISS can not really support but 2 launch vehicles (and just barely), and one of those is the Soyuz.

    We need to be pushing private space QUICKLY. Get SpaceX flying humans within a year, and within a year after that, allow BA to get their private space station going.

    In addition, it would be helpful if NASA was to put 1 or 2 astronauts on the BA unit for the first 3 years. i.e. pay for one of our astronauts to be there. That will help get this going and lower the prices quickly.

    “Boeing is interested in using CST-100 vehicle for cargo delivery runs in the future”.

    It makes good sense for them (along with DC) to be doing AUTOMATED cargo runs. But far better would be for them to drop the atlas and for another new true low price rocket to do it. If ULA is not designing a new one now, then they are making a huge mistake.
    And if they are not, then I would suggest to rocket aerodyne to jump all over this. They have the engine tech and can make a CHEAP rocket. Heck, they could team up with ATK and allow ATK to make the frame, while Aerodyne does electronics and engine.

    Regardless, OSC makes zero sense for cargo runs (very expensive for what you get from them, and they make very little of it, and hold next to none of the IP).

  • windbourne

    I suspect that he is as close as they come.
    What do you think that it means?

  • windbourne

    Boeing actually used to do that. Sadly, they have lost their way with military, and now their commercial is following in the same footpath due to Stonecipher and McNerney.
    Hopefully, they will change their path, but I doubt it. Even now, McNerney is pushing more of this garbage way on the company. Basically, he is pushing up short-term profits to sell his stock, while destroying the long-term value in the company.

    Now, if NASA could just get L-Mart to learn similar lessons and change.

  • Tonya

    That they’re pitching ways they can contribute to any and all future exploration plans. And that they’ll do so carefully walking the line to not directly undermine or criticise the SLS/Orion lobby.

  • windbourne

    First, NASA is already under massive attack from the neo-cons/tea*.
    Secondly, SpaceX is also criticizing SLS constantly.
    Third, once FH flies, I think that NASA and all of private space (save Boeing) will be out to kill off SLS.

  • Tonya

    Oh, SpaceX are completely undermining the SLS, it’s just amusing how they’re doing it.

    I’d use an analogy. If you were working somewhere, and your employer told you they were bringing in external contractors to “help and support you”, I think we would all see some extra meaning.