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.
SpaceX CCiCAP Milestone Status
Award Period: August 2012 – March 2015
Milestones Completed: 13
Milestones Remaining: 4
Total Possible Award: $460 Million
Total Award to Date: $330 Million
Total Award Remaining: $130 Million
| No.||Description||Original Date||Planned||Amount|
|11||Pad 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 2013||3Q 2014||$30 Million|
|12||Dragon 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 2014||2Q 2014||$30 Million|
|13||Integrated 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 2014||2Q 2014||$40 Million|
|14||In-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 2014||March 2015||$30 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.
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
|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 2013||March 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 2014||2Q 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 2014||2Q 2014||$8|
|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 2014||3Q 2014||$10 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.
Boeing Commercial Crew Milestones Status
Award Period: August 2012 – August 2014
Milestones Completed: 17
Milestones Remaining: 3
Total Possible Award: $480 Million
Total Award to Date: $427 Million
Total Award Pending: $53 Million
|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 2014||2Q 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 2014||3Q 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 2014||3Q 2014||$20 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.