A Look at Remaining Milestones for NASA’s Commercial Crew Partners

As NASA prepares to award the next round of commercial crew contracts in August, its three partners are in a different place in terms of completing their milestones and developing their vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

The space agency has provided SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation with seven additional months — from August 2014 to March 2015 — to complete their original milestones under the current CCiCAP funding round. Meanwhile, Boeing is set to complete all of 20 of its milestones — worth a total of $480 million — by August, when NASA will likely eliminate at least one competitor.

However, merely counting milestones completed doesn’t provide a clear sense of each company’s progress. SpaceX appears to be the closest to an orbital test flight of its Dragon V2 spacecraft, even though its test schedule has slipped by nearly a year. Boeing is on schedule, but its hardware hasn’t advanced as far as SpaceX’s systems. And Sierra Nevada has fallen nearly two years behind its original schedule in conducting glide flights of its Dream Chaser shuttle.

NASA had already extended the program once, from May to August 2014, and added additional milestones for Boeing and Sierra Nevada. SpaceX’s milestones have not changed. Milestones added when the funding round was extended are highlighted in the tables below.

Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX CCiCAP Milestone Status
Award Period: August 2012 – March 2015
Milestones: 17
Milestones Completed: 13
Milestones Remaining: 4
Total Possible Award: $460 Million
Total Award to Date: $330 Million
Total Award Remaining: $130 Million

DescriptionOriginal DatePlannedAmount
11Pad Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct a pad abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The scenario where an abort is initiated while the CTS is still on the pad is a design driver for the launch abort system as it dictates the total impulse and also requires parachute deployment in close proximity to the ground.December 20133Q 2014$30 Million
12Dragon Primary Structure Qualification. SpaceX will conduct static structural testing of all Dragon primary structure components to ultimate load factors, as applicable. This series of tests will validate the Dragon structure’s ability to maintain integrity during all driving load cases as well as verify the accuracy of math models used to analyze the Dragon structure. Individual tests will be designed to exercise all credible failure modes and minimum margin areas.January 20142Q 2014$30 Million
13Integrated Critical Design Review (CDR). SpaceX will hold an Integrated Critical Design Review (CDR) to demonstrate that the maturity of the CTS design is appropriate to support proceeding with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and test.March 20142Q 2014$40 Million
14In-Flight Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct an in-flight abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The in-flight abort test will supplement the pad abort test and complete the corners-of-the-box stress cases. The in-flight abort scenario represents a Dragon abort while under propulsive flight of the launch vehicle during the worst-case dynamic loads on the CTS.April 2014March 2015$30 Million
TOTAL:$130 Million

The pad abort and in-flight abort tests of the Dragon spacecraft will be the most spectacular of the four remaining milestones. Both milestones have slipped. The pad abort test was originally scheduled for December 2013, but it is now predicted sometime in the third quarter of 2014 (end of September). The in-flight abort test is now running about 11 months behind the original schedule.

Despite the delays, SpaceX is still the furthest along of the three companies in terms of flight testing. This is due, in large part, to having already flown cargo versions of the Dragon spacecraft to the space station.

The other major milestone on the schedule is the Integrated Critical Design Review. After SpaceX completes that milestone, it will be ready to proceed with “full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and test” work.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he believes the company will be ready to fly astronauts to the International Space Station on a commercial basis by the end of 2016, which w0uld be a year ahead of NASA’s schedule. Sierra Nevada and Boeing are both targeting 2017 for their commercial flights.

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

Sierra Nevada Commercial Crew Milestones Status
Award Period: August 2012 – March 2015
Total Milestones: 13
Milestones Completed: 9
Milestones Pending: 4
Total Possible Award: $227.5 Million
Total Awarded to Date: $184.5 Million

Total Award Remaining: $43 Million

No.DescriptionOriginal DatePlannedAmount
4B.Engineering Test Article Flight Testing. The purpose of these additional free flight test(s) is to reduce risk due to aerodynamic uncertainties in the subsonic approach and landing phase of flight and to mature the Dream Chaser aerodynamic database. A minimum of one and up to five additional Engineering Test Article free flight test(s) will be completed to characterize the aerodynamics and controllability of the Dream Chaser Orbital Vehicle outer mold line configuration during the subsonic approach and landing phase.April 2013March 2015
$8 Million
9.Risk Reduction and TRL Advancement Testing. The purpose of these tests is to significantly mature all Dream Chaser systems to or beyond a CDR level.May 20142Q 2014
$17 Million
9A.Main Propulsion and RCS Risk Reduction and TRL Advancement Testing. The purpose of these tests is to significantly mature the Dream Chaser Main Propulsion System and Reaction Control System to or beyond a CDR level. Risk reduction and Technology Readiness Level improvement tests will be completed for these systems.May 20142Q 2014
15A.Reaction Control System Testing — Incremental Test No. 1. The purpose of the test on this pre-qualification unit is to support eventual qualification/certification by testing the thruster in flight-like environments.July 20143Q 2014
$10 Million
TOTAL:$43 Million

Sierra Nevada’s biggest issue is the delay in flight testing the Dream Chaser engineering model. That effort is now running nearly two years behind the original schedule with the recent deadline extension to March 2015.

The company conducted a glide flight at the end of October 2013 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The test went well until part of the landing gear failed to deploy as Dream Chaser reached the runway, causing the vehicle to crash. Despite the mishap, NASA declared the test a success, and it awarded the company a $7 million milestone payment.

However, this test was actually a milestone left over from the previous CCDev round of commercial crew funding. At least one additional test is required. And that is not slated for completion until no later than 17 months after the initial one.

It’s worth noting that Sierra Nevada’s maximum potential award of $227.5 million is roughly half that of its two competitors. SpaceX is set to receive $460 million for completing its milestones, while Boeing would receive $480 million for completing all of its objectives.

This is a fully outfitted test version of The Boeing Company's CST-100 at the company's Houston Product Support Center in Texas. (Credit:  NASA/Robert Markowitz)
This is a fully outfitted test version of The Boeing Company’s CST-100 at the company’s Houston Product Support Center in Texas. (Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Boeing Commercial Crew Milestones Status
Award Period: August 2012 – August 2014
Milestones: 20
Milestones Completed: 17
Milestones Remaining: 3
Total Possible Award: $480 Million
Total Award to Date: $427 Million
Total Award Pending: $53 Million

No.DescriptionOriginal DatePlannedAmount
18.Software Critical Design Review. Boeing shall conduct a Spacecraft Software CDR. CDR confirms that the requirements, detailed designs, and plans for test and evaluation form a satisfactory basis for flight software development, verification, and delivery.March 20142Q 2014$15.1 Million
19.Critical Design Review (CDR) Board. Boeing shall establish and demonstrate a critical baseline design of the CCTS that meets system requirements. CDR confirms that the requirements, detailed designs, and plans for test and evaluation form a satisfactory basis for production and integration.April 20143Q 2014$17.9 Million
21A.Boeing Spacecraft Safety Review. Boeing shall prepare and conduct a Phase 2 Safety Review of the Commercial Crew Transportation System (CCTS) Spacecraft Critical Design Review (CDR) level requirements, system architecture and design, and associated safety products to assess conformance with Commercial Crew Transportation System certification process (CDR-level products). Focus is review of the updated hazard reports, hazard causes and controls, and specific safety verification methods to reflect the CDR level of design detail forthe CCTS Spacecraft Segment.
July 20143Q 2014$20 Million
$53 Million

Boeing is on schedule to complete all its milestones by August, including the Spacecraft Safety Review that was added when the funding round was extended by four months. Boeing has the most milestones (20) of the competitors, and would receive the most money ($480 million) for completing them.

The most important milestone is the Critical Design Review. Once that is complete, Boeing can begin production and integration of its CST-100 spacecraft.

The Next Round

NASA is now evaluating proposals from all three companies for the next funding round, which will have the winners building vehicles and flying them to orbit on test flights. With limited funding, the space agency is likely to eliminate at least one of the three companies. NASA could fund two full awards, or one full award and a second at roughly half the funding.

Conventional wisdom holds that Boeing and SpaceX are the most likely to be funded if NASA continues to support two programs. SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle is the furthest alone, and the company has the advantage of having actually flown cargo versions of it to the space station and recovered them successfully. Boeing’s expertise in human spaceflight goes back 50 years, and it is generally seen as a company capable of building and safely flying a human-rated spacecraft.

Although NASA likes Sierra Nevada’s lifting body approach, the space agency has never funded Dream Chaser at the level required to keep the vehicle on par with its two competitors. The nearly two-year delay in the glide flight tests program also does not bode well for the program.

All that being said, it’s worth pointing out that conventional wisdom is not always right. Much will depend upon what the three companies have proposed for the next funding round. Only a handful of officials at NASA have access to that information. We do not know how they have evaluated the proposals, particularly in light of the funding the space agency is likely to receive for the program.

Officials at SpaceX and Sierra Nevada have both said they would press on with the development of their vehicles even if they don’t receive funding in the next round. Boeing, on the other hand, has said it will need to carefully evaluate whether it will continue building CST-100 if additional NASA funding does not come through. Boeing is reported to have committed the least amount of its own money to commercial crew compared with its competitors.

  • windbourne

    Its funny. Boeing has been awarded the most but will have actually accomplished the least. Even SNC will have more testing done.

  • Douglas Messier

    Depends upon how you count the award money. If you discount all the funding SpaceX received to develop Dragon and Falcon 9 through COTS and CRS, then that’s true. Boeing is more starting from scratch with CST-100.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Falcon 9 doesn’t count as it’s the launch vehicle. Both SpaceX and Boeing had to do work on matching their capsule to the lv.
    I agree however with respect to CST-100 starting from scratch as opposed to Dragon but I’d qualify that since Boeing’s supposed to have all that knowledge around hsf. After all, they keep making milage around their history and experience and IIRC they’re the prime contractor for ISS aren’t they?

  • windbourne

    then you will discount all of the money from delta, commercial aviation, military aircraft, etc?
    And how does CRS count on this? It is a service that SpaceX performs for a fraction of the price that Boeing and L-Mart would have charged.

    And the company that is TRULY starting at scratch would be SNC.

  • windbourne

    along with prime for the shuttle itself.

  • Douglas Messier

    Well, there’s having decades of human spaceflight experience. Then there is building a specific vehicle. Those are two distinctly different things. And starting that development years after SpaceX started developing Dragon.

    SpaceX and Boeing are at two different places in development because SpaceX had a head start with COTS funding. That’s all I’m saying here.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    If you want to count everything that those companies have ever been paid for, they have delivered far more than SpaceX ever has or ever will.

  • windbourne

    They have delivered far more than SpaceX.
    BUT, to claim that they ever will, is a mistake.
    McNerney is gutting the company BADLY, all in the name of short-term profits.
    For example, he sold off the avionics division.
    In addition, most Boeing employees (including ex-employees) rate the 787 as one of our worst aircraft. Yet, McNerney is lining up to do the exact same thing again.
    He is destroying the long-term profits of Boeing, and to be fair, even of the airlines.

    Then look at CST-100. Boeing has invested very little into this. In fact, my understanding is that they have the least invested. Yet, this was a PREFECT opportunity.

    McNearny is taking the same approach that companies like GE, McDonald Douglas, etc have taken. And it ends up creating good money for that CEO, but kills the golden goose.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    You’re saying that McNearny is nothing more than a “Gold Digger.” That’s bad. I mean it’s bad in relationships, but, to use that same approach in running a company, man oh man. I wonder what the stock holders are thinking? That also means, that if Boeing is chosen as the main awardee, then, NASA can kiss innovation goodbye as far as Boeing is concerned. They have already said that they need to be the only company chosen to close their business case. It makes you wonder if their business case is trying to “Gold Dig” NASA out of all the bucks it can & then cease production of CST-100.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Which means, they knew approximately when shuttle was going to end & they could have invested funds to design their own vehicle (which they did) to move people into LEO(which they didn’t do). They wanted the gov to cover all costs to produce the vehicle. So, Boeing ceased work on their vehicle after they lost the contract to Lockmart to build the Orion MPCV. Just think, Boeing could be launching astronauts to LEO now, if they had continued on their own.

  • cdevboy

    All of these arguments about Boeing getting a foot up in the next awards round seems to always rest on their 50 year history of building manned spacecraft. Here is where I have a real problem.

    Lets face it, many of the craft discussed were actually built by prior companies Boeing bought. Most of those personnel are very long retired. The last program they could have worked was the Shuttle which flew for 30 years and was completely designed several years before first flight since the engines were having problems. I do acknowledge that Challengers replacement was built starting in 1986 with some slight redesign. Considering most workers have a 40 year tenure at most companies, at least in the past, few of those designers are left either.

    With every past craft or engine that people suggest bringing back into production, we find the companies not having the expertise anymore. No real clue where drawings are and engineers searching museums for existing examples to examine and educate themselves. Examples like the Saturn 5, it’s main engines, and the J-2. They even want to destructively use the last Shuttle Main engines in the first SLS launches until they figure out how to make a dependable disposable version. And that is an engine that has been in near term use. (This obviously is not just a Boeing problem).

    I just don’t believe the claim that their spacecraft heritage is really a bankable selling point for the next round. Their greatest expertise has become that of a prime integrator where most big aerospace companies are going because of higher profits.

    I really feel all three designs offer advantage and the competition is good. The available choices may help open more markets/options instead of just government use.

  • jim2mars

    This was dated June 30, 2014 and both Boeing, and Siera Nevada have one and SpaceX has two dated Q2 of this year. Since June is the end of Q2 does that mean all four have been compled so all three have three more to do?

    Was the model introduced by Elon Musk with so much fanfare a working model or just a mockup? Could, will it be launched? Could the Pad and Max Que abort of the Dragon be done on the Grasshopper possibly with exta engines, or must it have an upper stage to qualify? It does not need the upper stage to get the same conditions as max Q or max acceleration so I would think SpaceX does not need to use up a full Falcon 9 system. Could the above Dragon V2 #1 also be the test system to fill the milestone 11, 14, and 13?

    If or since the above first DV2 is there does that mean it passed the CDR and the same with structure test which is to be done before full fabrication is performed as assembled. These are numbers 12 and 13 so have both passed. It does say the structure test must be done before fabrication, but how do you do struture tests until the parts to be tested are fabricated?

    It does look like the Boeing model will be flying soon. SpaceX does have a simpler version that has made about six trips to orbit and all but one to the ISS.