After months of public speculation, NASA has finally revealed its selected ISS crew contractors.
Not surprisingly, the big winner in the competition is Boeing. The aerospace giant will receive a contract worth up to $4.2 billion. The total value includes vehicle development, certification, and operational flights to the International Space Station.
SpaceX will receive up to $2.6 billion to meet the same goals. It may seem strange that SpaceX is receiving less money for the same amount of work, but the contract payments are based on each company’s own bid.
NASA hopes that both companies will be able to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017. Meeting that date will depend on adequate funding from Congress, however. In the past, Congress has urged NASA to downselect to a single contractor, and there may be additional pressure on NASA in future budgets.
Before operational flights begin, each company will conduct at least one demonstration flight to ISS with a NASA astronaut onboard. The contracts are said to include six operational flights to the International Space Station (presumably split evenly between the two companies). The actual number of flights flown (and the actual value of the contracts) will depend on the needs of ISS, however.
The apparent loser in the competition is Sierra Nevada, which will receive no funding to continue development of its Dream Chaser lifting body. That development is unsurprising. Sierra Nevada was reduced to half funding in the previous round of CCDev contracts, signaling NASA’s direction.
In the long run, however, Sierra Nevada might turn out to be the winner. Sierra Nevada has been much more aggressive than Boeing or SpaceX in lining up customers outside of NASA. It has signed memoranda with the European Space Agency, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Japanese space agency (JAXA) which could lead to joint development and operations. By contrast, SpaceX reportedly turned down an offer from Dennis Tito to supply a capsule for the Inspiration Mars mission, for fear of alienating NASA, forcing Tito to turn to NASA’s Orion instead. Sierra Nevada is now free to pursue foreign and commercial customers with fear of contract reprisals.
NASA has invited the losing company to continue participating in the Commercial Crew program, without funding, and share its data with NASA. Whether Sierra Nevada takes NASA up on this offer or not remains to be seen. In any case, Sierra Nevada will not be obliged to comply with all of NASA’s certification rules, processes, and procedures, however. SpaceX project manager Garrett Reisman has spoken of “one thousand separate requirements” which NASA has imposed on contractors. Without this red tape, Sierra Nevada will be free to move more quickly, assuming it can find funding. In the end, it may be that Sierra Nevada wins for losing.