Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada win NASA CCDev contracts

CBS News

Four companies won NASA contracts totaling $270 million Monday to continue development of commercial manned spacecraft technology that agency managers hope will result in one or more operational space taxis by around 2015 to carry U.S. astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.

In the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program, known as CCDev2 for short, winners of NASA Space Act Agreement contracts were:

  • Boeing Co. of Houston: $92.3 million to continue development of the company's CST-100 capsule, including launch vehicle integration and abort system testing. "The accelerated capability development plan we propose for CCDev Round 2 offers NASA the opportunity to reduce the gap and stay on track for crew transportation capability in 2015," the company said in its proposal. "Our plan for system development and risk reduction demonstrations continues the program we started in CCDev to System Preliminary Design Review and provides options for system maturation beyond PDR."

  • Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo.: $80 million to continue development of systems for the company's winged "Dream Chaser" spacecraft, a vehicle based on a NASA lifting body design. "SNC successfully partnered with NASA in the first CCDev program and exceeded our commitments while demonstrating significant progress maturing design and development of the Dream Chaser Space System," the company said in its proposal.

  • Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif.: $75 million to continue development of its Dragon spacecraft design and side-mounted abort system. "With CCDev2 funding, we will cut in half the length of time to the first Dragon crew test fight, compared to an internally funded baseline. This acceleration provides the capability to launch crew to the ISS in 2014, thus limiting the need for Soyuz contract extensions.

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.: $22 million for continued spacecraft design development, propulsion system testing and development of a "pusher" abort escape system. "The biconic space vehicle will be capable of carrying seven astronauts and will transfer NASA crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station, serve as an ISS emergency escape vehicle for up to 210 days and perform a land landing to minimize the costs of recovery and reuse," the company said in its proposal.

    Boeing's proposed CST-100 commercial manned spacecraft. (Credit: Boeing)
    All four companies plan to invest significant amounts of their own money in the project, although the exact amounts were not known.

    "The goal of CCDev round two is to accelerate the development and availability of U.S commercial crew space transportation systems by enabling significant progress on maturing the design and development of elements of the system, such as launch vehicles and spacecraft, while ensuring crew and passenger safety," said Philip McAlister, the acting director of NASA's commercial spaceflight development office in Washington.

    "Each proposal contained technical and business information, including the amount of NASA investment needed and the company's financial contribution."

    With the space shuttle program facing retirement after just two more missions, the Obama administration has directed NASA to oversee development of new private sector spacecraft that presumably will be safer and cheaper to operate than the much more complex -- and costly -- space shuttle. At the same time, NASA is working on plans to build and launch government owned spacecraft on deep space exploration missions.

    But in the near term, until U.S. companies can design, build and launch one or more commercial space taxis, U.S. astronauts will be forced to hitch rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at an average cost of nearly $55 million a seat.

    NASA received 22 proposals for CCDev2 contacts last December, of which eight were selected for more detailed assessment. Of that eight, the four companies that failed to win a contract were ATK Aerospace, builder of the space shuttle's solid-fuel boosters; United Launch Alliance, which builds Atlas and Delta rockets, Excalibur Almaz; and Orbital Sciences, which already has a contract to build and launch unmanned space station supply ships.

    "In order to make the selections, we considered how far each company would progress technically, specifically the degree to which each company would accelerate development of its own concept and accelerate the availability of a U.S. commercial crew transportation system," McAlister said. "We also considered the viability of the company's business approach to support and carry out its technical development plan."

    He said the evaluation team was "very impressed" with the quality of the proposals.

    "All eight of the participants selected for due diligence (assessment) had worthwhile proposals and demonstrated an understanding of safety and a commitment to safe spaceflight," he said. "Given enough time and money, I'm confident that multiple U.S. companies could develop safe, reliable and cost effective commercial crew transportation systems."

    Eric Anderson, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a statement that "today's announcement marks a critical milestone on the path to a commercial human spaceflight sector that will lower the cost of space access and open new markets."

    "To have a large and diverse group of U.S. companies among today's winners, including both established contractors and newer entrants, emphasizes that American industry is ready to handle the task of commercial human spaceflight -- safely, affordably, and rapidly."