NASA moves quickly to advance commercial space operations

NASA spreads $50M to five companies to get commercial spacecraft moving

NASA today moved quickly to advance its role as commercial space entrepreneur by awarding $50 million to five companies who could help design and build future spacecraft that could take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

During its 2011 budget rollout today NASA said if private companies can develop safe, solid spaceships, astronauts could use them as early 2016. As part of its 2011 budget request, NASA asked for $6 billion over five years to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles. As the space shuttle retires this year, NASA will have to use other means to get its astronauts to the ISS.

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The five companies and their awards are:

• Blue Origin: $3.7 million

• The Boeing Company: $18 million

• Paragon Space Development Corporation: $1.4 million

• Sierra Nevada Corporation: $20 million

• United Launch Alliance: $6.7 million

The money is expected to be used toward the development of crew concepts and technology for future commercial support of human spaceflight and are designed to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to high-tech job growth in engineering, analysis, design and research, and to promote economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created, NASA said.

NASA said the money and the research will be managed by and are part of are part of its recently established Commercial Crew and Cargo Program that looks to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective capabilities to transport cargo and eventually crew to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

The program, known as "CCDev," represents a milestone in the development of an orbital commercial human spaceflight sector, NASA stated. By maturing "the design and development of commercial crew spaceflight concepts and associated enabling technologies and capabilities," the program will allow several companies to move a few steps forward towards the ultimate goal of full demonstration of commercial human spaceflight to orbit, NASA said.

CCDev will go hand-in-hand with NASA's existing $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) which is supporting the private development of commercial cargo transportation from companies such as SpaceX and Orbital. For its part NASA says that programs such as COTS and CCDEv will reduce the gap in US human spaceflight capability.

NASA also recently said it would partner with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a technology roadmap for use of reusable commercial spaceships. The study of reusable launch vehicle or RLVs will focus on identifying technologies and assessing their potential use to accelerate the development of commercial reusable launch vehicles that have improved reliability, availability, launch turn-time, robustness and significantly lower costs than current launch systems, NASA stated. The study results will provide roadmaps with recommended government technology tasks and milestones for different vehicle categories.

Reusable launch vehicles or rockets are one of the key technologies for the future of commercial space flight. The Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee report said that commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach. "While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and life-cycle costs than government could achieve. A new competition with adequate incentives to perform this service should be open to all US aerospace companies."

Today’s commercial contracts come as NASA rolled out its $19 billion 2011 budget. Most of the attention was focused on the fact that the Constellation project, which has already spent $9 billion, was axed. But the budget includes three new exploration programs:

• A Technology demonstration program, $7.8 billion over five years. The program funds the development and demonstration of technologies that reduce the cost and expand the capabilities of future exploration activities, including in-orbit refueling and storage.

• A Heavy-Lift and Propulsion research and development plan of $3.1 billion over five years. Funds R&D for new launch systems, propellants, materials, and combustion processes.

• Money for robotic missions: $3.0 billion over five years. The idea is to fund cost-effective means to scout exploration targets and identify hazards and resources for human visitation and habitation.

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