Friday, 03 August 2012 11:45
August 3, 2012
After getting three decades of reliable service out of it, barring a few catastrophic failures, the U.S. saw the end of its shuttle program last summer, leaving the country] without any means of sending its own astronauts into orbit.
To keep the International Space Station manned and operational, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was forced to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets combined with a variety of unmanned supply ships.
On Friday, though, the agency announced the latest stage in a new project that looks to bring back the spaceflight capability America lost with the end of the shuttle, offering more than $1.1 billion in funding to private companies looking to building a new generation of spacecraft. According to Space.com, the project itself was known as the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative.
Big winners in stiff competition
In all, there were seven different companies competing to win a piece of NASA's big prize, each offering its own unique take on the problem.
Included among them were aerospace and defense engineering research giant Boeing, which goes as far back in American spaceflight as the Apollo program and even earlier efforts, as well as rising star Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which recently succeeded in sending its Dragon space capsule to meet up with the ISS.
Those two companies proved to be the biggest winners, with Boeing possibly getting as much as $460 million and SpaceX seeing potentially $440 million. Behind them came another stalwart of the industry, Sierra Nevada Corporation, which was given up to $212.5 million to develop a completely different model of reusable space plane.
One final company, space shuttle partner Alliant Techsystems (ATK), had tossed its Liberty rocket into the ring, but ultimately was edged out of the competition. The final three companies - Space Operations Inc., American Aerospace Corp. and Space Design Inc. - never managed to meet NASA's design specifications.
The fact that these companies were chosen for the CCiCap program is not necessarily any kind of guarantee for the winners, however. Space.com reports that NASA has imposed a number of specifically tailored milestones that each company will need to meet in order to earn the full amount set aside under the program.
Sierra Nevada, with the smallest investment, will also have the fewest milestones with only nine, but the numbers scale up notably to 14 for SpaceX and 19 for Boeing. The final milestone for Boeing, in particular, could be difficult, requiring a full design review for the aging Atlas 5 rocket and the company's new CST-100 space capsule.
Cost a concern
NASA's strict milestone system is hardly just a bureaucratic hurdle, however. The purpose of the CCiCap initiative, Bloomberg notes, is in part to save money compared to relying on the Russian Soyuz, which sports a cost of $63 million per seat.
"We’re in this kind of embarrassing situation of depending on Russia for crew transportation," John Logsdon, a professor at George Washington University and founder of the school's Space Policy Institute, told Bloomberg. "These systems are the way out of that."
To that end, NASA has required that all the companies involved in the project bring in some of their own money in addition to the CCiCap funding, specifically paying for a share of testing as well as engineering research and development.
"What that means to the tax payer is that NASA is not paying 100 percent of this development cost," said Ed Mango, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. "They are also bringing money to the table."
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