As August Rolls On, A Decision on Commercial Crew Looms Large

As the second full week of August begins, we are approaching ever closer to a critical decision point in the future of American space transportation, an award announcement in the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The next phase, called CCtCap, or Commercial Crew Transportation Capability is notionally set to be awarded in “August or September.” In other words soon, very soon.

Perhaps the last relevant announcement from any of three competitors, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX, came from the latter with last week’s report that the Hawthorne, Ca. based company has established November and January dates for its pad and in-flight abort tests respectively.  Of particular note was the fact that the in-flight abort test will take place not from Cape Canaveral as might have been expected, but instead from the SpaceX pad at Vandenberg, Ca., a facility which has thus far hosted only a single SpaceX launch, the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 V1.1 on September 29, 2013.  The location for the in-flight abort test makes for an interesting, if ultimately irrelevant storyline. It will likely be the closest the U.S. has ever come to a west coast launch of a crewed rocket, where the Air Force once prepared for a military, polar orbiting Shuttle from the SLC-6 pad now occupied by the Delta IV.

Had SpaceX been able to maintain its original timeline and completed both the pad and in-flight abort tests before the impending CCtCap announcement, the outcome might seem pre-ordained. Instead, in June, NASA granted waivers to both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada to extend the deadlines for tests being conducted as part of the previous Commercial Crew Integrated Capacity CCiCAP round. Still both SpaceX and SNC, which recently reconfirmed its plans for a 2016 automated orbital launch for its Dream Chaser space plane irrespective of the outcome of the impending award, could be considered as likely to still benefit from an accelerated schedule as compared to Boeing which elected to defer abort or flight testing until receiving a final award (and presumably the funding to cover it.)

How it all falls out, and even how many awards there will be going forward is still a mystery, but at least for a brief but waning moment, the future of America’s access to orbital space is as bright as it is going to be for a while, with three different but equally credible systems all still a possibility. Each will live on in some sense. From MOL and Dyna-Soar to Venturestar and Jupiter Direct, an alternate history of space remains alive and well in viewgraphs, plans and presentations from concepts which never came to fruition. Now, at least one more is likely to join that list. Sometimes it becomes it becomes all too easy to project our notions of “if only” on those roads not taken. Some say it is one of the average “space cadet’s” most common mistakes, to believe that the future would have been different, if only the hardware was too.

This time however, it may really be different, regardless of how the hardware decision comes down, provided NASA maintains the spirit, even as it is denied the precise form, of the Space Act Agreements which gave us COTS and CRS, (and not coincidentally Falcon 9 and Dragon) and has brought Commercial Crew to this point. One of the most telling aspects will be the degree to which NASA responds to those in Congress which want a single winner, versus its own instincts to preserve competition as long as possible, all the way through to performance.  At the same time however, the agency is also driven by the conflicting desire to field a commercial system and break absolute dependence on Russia as soon as possible. More funds directed towards a single source would presumably aid that goal.

NASA is only part of this rocket equation however, and to that end the outcome may depend on the corporate culture which is chosen as its partner as much as it does on the hardware which created it. One suspects a healthy tension would be a good thing.

SpaceX at least, as evidenced by Falcon 9-R, Raptor, well everything really, still seems immune to business as usual.  On the other hand, would Boeing even seek to resist a slide back in to the demands and pitfalls of conventional contracting for its CST-100? Or, competition now out of the way, would it welcome a return to the comfortable confines of the sole source contracts which it enjoys with SLS?

And which way would Sierra Nevada Corporation go? Aggressively marketing the Dream Chaser to both Europe and Japan, there is no lack of enthusiasm for its space plane on the part of SNC. At the same time, spreading the costs through internationalization is now a standard part of the NASA playbook, (witness both ISS and Orion’s European Service Module) and recent statements about how many different states SNC’s supplier network entails comes right off the first page, first paragraph of the book of conventional aerospace marketing.

So, as August rolls towards September, NASA is quickly approaching its moment of truth and a decision of enormous consequence not just for the agency and the path it will follow to low Earth orbit, or for the three firms most directly involved, but also for others, including Bigelow Aerospace which has enormous vested interested in the outcome, and every reason to hope for a dual winner solution to maximize its opportunities for success with a series of inflatable space stations.  Finally, of course there is also United Launch Alliance, which not so long ago might have viewed the Commercial Crew competition with healthy optimism. Now with the future of the Atlas V and its Russian RD-180 engine still up in the air, NASA’s commercial crew decision could come as a welcome respite, or as confirmation that parent company Lockheed Martin’s long running bet against American ingenuity has finally come up short.

Some thoughts to consider before the date is set, the decisions are announced, and everything changes once again.

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