SpaceX Left Out of Commercial Crew? Don’t Bet on It

The Wall Street Journal set off a firestorm Monday evening with an article by Andy Pasztor suggesting that Boeing is about to be named the walk off winner in NASA’s next phase of the Commercial Crew Competition, CCtCap, with an award made in conjunction with Blue Origin.

Anything could happen. As long time observers will recall, Lockheed Martin won NASA’s RLV competition in the late 1990’s, a victory which came despite the apparent strength of McDonnell Douglas’ performance with the DC-X pathfinder vehicle. We all know what happened next. Nothing. Unless you count wasted tax dollars and lost opportunities.

So here we are again, with rumors swirling that Blue Origin, who ironically, or perhaps fittingly given the personnel and design heritage between the DC-X concept and its own plans, is poised to emerge as a major player in CCtCap, despite having declined to formally enter the current CCiCap phase after winning a share of the previous segment, CCDev-2.

It its difficult to see what if anything Blue Origin could bring to the table at this point, particularly given the time constraints NASA is under to meet a 2017 first crew launch, and more importantly, the far more mature status of Boeing’s CST-100/Atlas V proposal.

That is not to say, Blue Origin does not ultimately have a major role to play, and quite frankly there is every reason to hope they do. Right not however,  there simply is not time.

There is however, every reason to think that a partnership between Blue Origin and Boeing and Lockheed Martin through ULA to develop an alternative to the RD-180 engine is at least plausible, especially given the fact that Blue’s funded CCDev-2 and ongoing unfunded Space Act Agreements with NASA centered on developing its BE-3 hydrogen/oxygen main engine for its own suborbital vehicle. Moreover, with Blue Origin and Boeing partnering up on DARPA’s XS-1 reusable first stage launcher project, the ties are already in place. Assuming a new engine project is the reason for the Wednesday announcement referenced in the WSJ piece, it would represent one possible way out of the RD-180 conundrum, although the enormous performance differential and apparent absence of large engine manufacturer Aerojet-Rocketdyne give rise to more questions than the partnership answers.

But what of NASA, SpaceX and Commercial Crew?

As pointed out last week, it stretches the bounds of credulity to believe that SpaceX would be left out of significant share of the Commercial Crew award, based on very same engine issue ULA may be trying to solve in partnership with Blue Origin.  Proceeding with a sole award to Boeing as WSJ would have us believe, or a split to Boeing and Sierra Nevada, both launching on the Atlas V, would place all the NASA eggs in a Russian basket which just might have a trap door in the bottom.

And then there is this. When NASA made the decision to lease historic launch pad 39A to SpaceX, an announcement made from the pad and immediately prior to the SpaceX CRS-3 launch, the sense of anticipation of seeing NASA crews launch from this NASA pad again was almost palpable.  Something much more ominous than a testing accident in Texas would have had to have taken place for the agency to back away from SpaceX and the Dragon V2 as at least one of two probable winners in the upcoming announcement, no matter when it comes down.

Is SpaceX out? Don’t bet on it.

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