Two for Tuesday: NASA Names SpaceX and Boeing as Commercial Crew Winners

It’s official.

Making what it called a “A historic announcement about the future of America’s space program” SpaceX and Boeing were named as the two winners in NASA’s Commercial Crew competition at a press conference held at the Kennedy Space Center. The total amount of the award over the initial contract period is $6.8 billion.

Among the specifics announced at the press conference today is a requirement for both companies to pass five NASA directed safety reviews in addition to the milestones they proposed. Both companies will perform one test flight with at least one NASA astronaut on board, followed by “at least two, and up to six” operational flights.

Boeing was heavily favored in terms of the total award, at $4.2 billion maximum value and SpaceX at $2.6 billion. However, those numbers are both intended to get the companies to the same point, and are representative of the proposals they made. For its part, SpaceX has consistently stated as far back as 2012 that it needed approximately $3 billion to produce a crew vehicle. It got approximately that amount.

In other words the $1.6 billion differential reflects the cost spread between the two companies.

The announcement kicks off a new round of what may be the most overused term since Sputnik first shot into the heaven in 1957; a new “space race.”

For once, the term may be apropos, and on multiple levels.

Both companies, as well as NASA are committed to an effort to regain an American crew launch capability which was placed on the shelf when the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to wheel stop in July 2011. In this case the finish line, and the end of the “gap” is U.S. launch capability is slated for “late 2017.”

On what should be a happy day for much of the American space industry, Sierra Nevada and its Dream Chaser space plane excepted, it should not go without notice that had the U.S. Congress funded NASA’s Commercial Crew Program at something close to requested levels beginning in 2010,  the nation would be at least a full year closer to the goal, and perhaps more.

That did not happen, but perhaps now that the winners are announced, the countdown has started, and actual development is underway, the funding issues are in the past as well. Plenty of challenges still lie ahead.

CST 100 Approaches ISS Credit: Boeing

CST 100 Approaches ISS
Credit: Boeing


Boeing, which once again is taking home the lion’s share of the award, must quickly move from milestones which consisted of subsystem testing and design reviews, all of which culminated in a successful Critical Design Review completed in July, to actually bending metal.  Also on the agenda, construction of a crew access and escape infrastructure at the ULA SLC-41 launch pad which is home to the Atlas V. Finally, a whole lot of praying that Russia does not revert back to its threat to block access to the RD-180 main engine which powers the Atlas V.

Dragon V2 Image Credit: SpaceX

Dragon V2
Image Credit: SpaceX

For SpaceX, which due in part to its participation in NASA’s COTS and CRS programs with its Dragon cargo ship, is comparatively further along, the immediate risks can be found in a pair of flight tests approaching quickly. The first is a pad abort test of the Dragon V2 and its SuperDraco powered escape system, which will take place from a purpose built stand at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 in November.  After that, an in-flight abort test, to be conducted at Vandenberg, Ca. is scheduled for early 2015. Assuming it completes both successfully, the company could be looking at a first flight as soon as 2016. Before that can happen, SpaceX will have to complete modifications to KSC launch pad 39A, the same pad which hosted the final Shuttle launch.

Left on the ground, at least for now, is Sierra Nevada Corporation and the third entry into the competition, the Dream Chaser space plane. SNC was given a “half award” of $212.5 million when the CCiCap winners were announced in 2012, edging out a fourth competitor ATK.

There was one strange note regarding the announcement:

Somewhat incongruously, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who named the winners, spent the vast majority of his time talking not about Commercial Crew, but instead about the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. Ostensibly, the purpose was to place today’s announcement in context, but given the strained funding history of Commercial Crew, inflicted by a Congress seeking to support SLS/Orion at its expense, the attention was noteworthy.

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