NASA announced late yesterday that it has issued the first task orders for crew rotation flights under its Commercial Crew program. The order went to Boeing, but as the press release included below makes clear, that does not necessarily mean the first flight will go to Boeing as well. In parsing previous statements, the agency has sometimes sought to draw a distinction between the first operational flight and the first crewed test flight for each system. Given that the crewed test flights now appear all but certain to be flights to ISS rather that to free orbit as was once suggested, the distinction is not insignificant.
Just when those flights will take place is another matter entirely, as NASA and its Administrator Charles Bolden are embroiled in yet another edition of the annual funding battle with Congress, and in particular the House of Representatives, which wants to authorize a flat $1 billion to the Commercial Crew program for FY 2016. While greater than last year’s $805 million, it is still less than the $1.244 billion Bolden says is necessary to keep both Boeing and SpaceX on track to complete their respective milestones in time for first flights in 2017. Adding to the difficulty, NASA is taking the position that if it does not receive full funding for Commercial Crew, it will slow both vendors equivalently and thereby guarantee prolonged dependence on Russia, as opposed to taking a modified leader/follower approach.
NASA Press Release:
NASA has taken another step toward returning America’s ability to launch crew missions to the International Space Station from the United States in 2017.
The Commercial Crew Program ordered its first crew rotation mission from The Boeing Company. SpaceX, which successfully performed a pad abort test of its flight vehicle earlier this month, is expected to receive its first order later this year. Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time. The contract calls for the orders to take place prior to certification to support the lead time necessary for the first mission in late 2017, provided the contractors meet certain readiness conditions.
Missions flown to the station on Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will restore America’s human spaceflight capabilities and increase the amount of scientific research that can be conducted aboard the orbiting laboratory.
“Final development and certification are top priority for NASA and our commercial providers, but having an eye on the future is equally important to the commercial crew and station programs,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Our strategy will result in safe, reliable and cost-effective crew missions.”
Boeing’s crew transportation system, including the CST-100 spacecraft, has advanced through various commercial crew development and certification phases. The company recently completed the fourth milestone in the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the program, the delta integrated critical design review. This milestone demonstrates the transportation system has reached design maturity appropriate to proceed with assembly, integration and test activities.
“We’re on track to fly in 2017, and this critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design,” said John Mulholland, Boeing’s vice president of Commercial Programs. “Our integrated and measured approach to spacecraft design ensures quality performance, technical excellence and early risk mitigation.”
Orders under the CCtCap contracts are made two to three years prior to the missions to provide time for each company to manufacture and assemble the launch vehicle and spacecraft. In addition, each company must successfully complete the certification process before NASA will give the final approval for flight. If NASA does not receive the full requested funding for CCtCap in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, NASA will have to delay future milestones for both partners proportionally and extend sole reliance on Russia for crew access to the station.
A standard mission to the station will carry four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members and about 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. The spacecraft will remain at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time. Each contract includes a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions.
“Commercial Crew launches are critical to the International Space Station Program because it ensures multiple ways of getting crews to orbit,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. “It also will give us crew return capability so we can increase the crew to seven, letting us complete a backlog of hands-on critical research that has been building up due to heavy demand for the National Laboratory.”
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manages the CCtCap contracts and is working with each company to ensure commercial transportation system designs and post-certification missions will meet the agency’s safety requirements. Activities that follow the award of missions include a series of mission-related reviews and approvals leading to launch. The program also will be involved in all operational phases of missions to ensure crew safety.