Categories: Science
| On 1 month ago

NASA Starts Procurement of More Commercial Crew

By Aswin Kumar

NASA is starting the process of acquiring more commercial crew flights as it looks to extend the International Space Station through the end of the decade, including the possibility of new entrants.

On Oct. 20, NASA issued a request for information (RFI) to the industry, requesting information on their ability to transport astronauts to and from the station. The deadline for responding to the agency is November 19.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, to Boeing and SpaceX. These contracts included the final development and certification of their commercial crew vehicles, as well as up to six “post-certification” or operational missions to the station.

Because of ongoing issues with the development of its CST-100 Starliner vehicle, Boeing’s first post-certification mission is unlikely to take place before 2023, pushing back a second uncrewed test flight to the first half of 2022 and a crewed test flight to late 2022. SpaceX, on the other hand, will launch Crew-3, its third Crew Dragon post-certification mission, on Oct. 31, and NASA is planning Crew-4 and Crew-5 missions for 2022.

During an Oct. 19 call with reporters about the status of Starliner, NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said the agency was beginning to consider plans for acquiring additional commercial crew flights, given that SpaceX’s CCtCap contract was coming to an end and the agency’s desire to operate the station until the end of the decade.

Boeing has been given permission to fly three of its six flights, while SpaceX has been given permission to fly five of its six. “We’re going through those contract actions and figuring out how to add additional flights, likely to both contracts, at some point,” he said.

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NASA did not specify how it would obtain the additional seats in its request for information. While NASA has only purchased full missions from Boeing and SpaceX so far, it has stated that it could purchase single or multiple seats on a mission with non-NASA customers as well.

“Commercial crew transportation services are going to be needed into the foreseeable future, and we want to maintain competition, provide assured access to space on U.S. human launch systems and continue to enable a low Earth orbit economy,” 

Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement accompanying the RFI.

This includes the option of choosing companies other than Boeing and SpaceX. NASA stated that it was looking for information on existing certified vehicles as well as “estimated timelines on the availability of future systems capable of achieving certification no later than 2027.”

This could open the door for Sierra Space, the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s space division. In 2014, it competed for a CCtCap contract with its Dream Chaser lifting body vehicle. It was defeated by Boeing and SpaceX and then filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, only to have the protest rejected by the GAO.

Sierra Nevada was later awarded a NASA Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract to transport cargo to and from the space station using a cargo version of Dream Chaser. However, company executives have stated several times that they are still interested in developing a crewed version of that spacecraft.

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Aswin Kumar

A creative science nerd! Buy me a coffee: buymeacoffee.com/aswinkumar

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