Marco Cáceres di Iorio

NASA’s Commercial Crew Vehicles: Practical But Not Sexy

The two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX by NASA on September 16 should come as no big surprise to anyone familiar with both the agency’s conservative culture and its relatively small annual budget of just under $18 billion. Boeing received $4.2 billion to continue with development of its human-rated system based on the Atlas V rocket and CST-100 capsule, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion to continue work on its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and Dragon V2 combo. The idea is for the two systems to be ready by 2017 to begin flying American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) so the United States can start to wean itself from its dependency on Russia.

Boeing and SpaceX beat out a proposal by Sierra Nevada based on the Atlas V and a reusable spaceplane called Dream Chaser.

Currently, NASA is paying the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos about $71 million (per seat) to carry its astronauts to ISS aboard Soyuz rockets and capsules. The agency has been doing this since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. The cooperative arrangement has worked well. NASA gets cheap and safe rides to the station for its astronauts, while Rosaviakosmos earns some much needed hard currency. Everyone’s a winner.

The problem now is that the relationship between the US and Russian governments has gone south. During the past year, due to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and interventionism in eastern Ukraine, the resultant economic sanctions against Russia by the West, and US meddling in Syria, the US-Russian relationship has grown unstable, and thus unreliable — certainly from NASA’s standpoint.

NASA can no longer take it for granted that Rosaviaskosmos will continue to sell it rides to ISS. It is entirely possible that the Russian government’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who heads his country’s defense and space industries, may wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and announce Russia will no longer transport NASA astronauts to ISS. That would pose a political nightmare for the US. We’d be grounded. No way to get to our $100 billion space station.

In short, NASA has a very narrow window of opportunity to develop an American manned spaceflight capability. It has to be done in about 3-4 years in order to minimize the chance that the US will be grounded without any near-term options. That’s one of the reasons NASA chose to go with the Boeing and SpaceX proposals, and not Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser.

While Dream Chaser would have stood a much better chance of exciting the public (particularly the youth) about human spaceflight than the CST-100 and Dragon V2 capsules, going with a sleek looking reusable spaceplane may have been riskier from both a time and money standpoint — neither of which NASA has in abundance these days. It’s a shame, because Dream Chaser is a beautiful vehicle. It’s essentially the upgraded version of NASA’s old HL-20 test vehicle. Oh yeah, it also starred in one of my favorite sci-fi TV shows of all time, Farscape. I’m afraid capsules just don’t have the same sex appeal.

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