A Few Thoughts on Commercial Crew….

It’s been two days since NASA announced commercial crew awards to Boeing and SpaceX. Now that the blogosphere and Twitterati have had their say, let’s step back and take a closer look at the most misunderstood aspect of NASA’s decision.

Much has been made about the disparity in award amounts, with Boeing receiving $4.2 billion and SpaceX “only” $2.6 billion. The difference has been variously attributed to SpaceX’s lean operations, Boeing’s high costs and overhead, and Boeing’s political influence on Capitol Hill. Some people believe NASA shafted SpaceX, giving far less funding to a superior company.

It is true that Boeing’s costs and overhead are higher than SpaceX’s. Boeing is an established aerospace company; SpaceX runs more like a Silicon Valley start-up. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches, which is a topic for another day.

However, it must be noted that NASA Commercial Crew Manager Kathy Lueders has said the companies received what they asked for to complete spacecraft development and flight test the vehicles by the end of 2017. So, there’s little reason to believe SpaceX was shortchanged.

What other reason would explain why SpaceX needs less funding than its competitor? That’s easy. SpaceX is further along toward that 2017 goal than Boeing is at this point.

SpaceX began work on its Dragon spacecraft much earlier than Boeing did on its CST-100 vehicle. SpaceX signed a contract with NASA to develop Dragon and its Falcon 9 booster under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in May 2006.

That award was made more than 3.5 years before NASA began funding the Commercial Crew Program with a modest $50 million investment that was divided among Boeing and four other companies. Those contracts were finalized at the end of January 2010.

SpaceX was not among those companies receiving awards; it chose not to compete in the program at that time. However, it has received funding in all subsequent Commercial Crew funding rounds, as has Boeing.

NASA didn’t make the second round of commercial crew awards — which allowed the winners to begin work on their crew vehicles in earnest, until April 2011.

By that point, SpaceX work under the COTS contract had already born fruit with a successful solo test flight of the Dragon spacecraft in December 2010. The company followed that with a successful demonstration mission to ISS in May 2012, which completed the COTS program.

Since that mission, SpaceX has flown Dragon to ISS three times under a separate, $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. (A fourth flight is set for Saturday). Those missions have given the company the opportunity to prove out Dragon and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and work out the bugs in both systems.

SpaceX has used the Commercial Crew contract awards to develop the systems required to human-rate Dragon and Falcon 9.  The company will conduct an on-pad abort test with the Dragon in November and an in-flight abort in January. If those tests go well, the path ahead is fairly clear.

Boeing is not nearly as far along because it started work on its CST-100 spacecraft much later and has not been able to fly it yet. The company still expects to meet the end-of-2017 deadline that NASA has set for launching crews.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said his company expects to achieve the same goal a year earlier. That seems like a reasonable prediction given where the company is with its development. Of course, that also assumes that everything goes as planned, and that Musk isn’t being overly optimistic again as he has been in the past.

So, the disparity in the awards is largely overblown. SpaceX seemed to be a logical choice for an award based on its progress to date. The interesting question is why Boeing was selected over its rival, Sierra Nevada Corporation.

That question will be largely answered once NASA releases its source selection statement. It will lay out in great detail who submitted bids, how those bids were evaluated, and why NASA made the awards that it did.

The statement can’t be released under NASA has briefed all the bidders on its decisions. It’s not clear what the timetable is for completing that process., but it could take a week or more.

NASA has said it is not sure whether it will release redacted contracts signed with Boeing and SpaceX. I hope they do release them, as they have done for previous Commercial Crew funding rounds.

The information has been invaluable in allowing the media and the public to follow and evaluate the progress of the companies involved.  It would be a shame if that ability was removed just as the program is reaching its most important stage.