NASA adds $50M program to develop commercial space systems

Commercial Crew and Cargo Program looks to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective capabilities to transport cargo and eventually crew to low-Earth orbit

moon shot
While its future is being debated, NASA today said it would offer $50 million in stimulus money to further develop private commercial spacecraft.

NASA said its Commercial Crew and Cargo Program 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 new 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.

The program further develops the strategy that NASA's low-earth orbit  work will soon be left to private hands. The agency could then focus on the moon and beyond, barring budget disasters.

The Government Accountability Office recently had a harsh assessment of that program stating that while NASA's commercial partners have made steady progress in developing space cargo transportation technology, they have fallen behind their development schedules.  Combine that with the fact that the most critical steps lie ahead, including successfully launching new vehicles and completing integration with the space station and NASA will have a hole that will be tough to climb out of.

Space development programs are by nature complex and rife with technical obstacles that can easily result in development delays. In our recent report on selected large-scale NASA projects, we found that 10 of the 13 projects that we reviewed had experienced significant cost and/or schedule growth from their project baselines. Commercial partners must develop and demonstrate new launch and space vehicles, launch and mission operations capabilities, and achieve integration with the space station in a 3- to 4-year period, the GAO said.

For its part NASA says that programs such as COTS and CCDEv will reduce the gap in US human spaceflight capability.

During testimony this week in front of Norm Augustine's Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, executives from a number of private space flight companies said not only could they bring about efficient space operations in low earth orbit, they could provide cheaper, more reliable launch systems than those of NASA's lunar Constellation program.

According to a report: Michael Gass, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, told the committee that the company could use an existing Delta rocket to launch the Constellation project's Orion capsule into space sooner and at a lower cost than NASA's planned Ares I rocket.

And Gary Pulliam at Aerospace, which was hired to look at other ways to launch Orion, said a modified Delta IV Heavy rocket could save between $3 billion and $6 billion compared with the Ares I. Pulliam noted that NASA has said canceling the Ares I project would add $14.1 billion to $16.6 billion to the cost of developing the larger Ares V rocket, which NASA hopes to use to take the Orion capsule farther into space, including to Mars.

Executives with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences told committee members that they could help NASA ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, filling the gap between the end of the shuttle program in 2010 and the start of Constellation.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also said that using private firms to service the space station -- both for supplies and people -- would free up NASA to spend its funds on more ambitious space exploration. NASA has contracted with both firms for a total of 20 missions to service the station, the report stated.

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