NASA Breaks with the Past: Commercial Crew Transportation Contractors Announced

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“Today, with the selection of Boeing and SpaceX to be the first American companies to launch our astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA has set the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of human space flight.”  So wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a September 16 posting on the agency’s website about the selection of two private contractors to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.

The two agreements with The Boeing Company and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) will require them to each build and operate integrated rocket and spacecraft systems for low-Earth orbit human transportation. By using privately-owned space transportation systems to carry astronauts to the International Space Station NASA can concentrate its resources on cutting-edge programs such as the heavy-lift Space Launch [rocket] System and the Orion crew capsule. Beginning in 1959 with Project Mercury, NASA has designed and owned the space craft used for transportation of American astronauts.   

NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011 and has since been paying Russia $71 million per US astronaut for Soyuz transportation to the Station.  Although Bolden has repeatedly assured Congress that it is in Russia’s interest to provide transportation services, the situation in Ukraine has worried lawmakers that U.S. access to the station could be curtailed.  An agency document explains the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability as “Buying a Service: Once development is complete, NASA plans to buy a service – simply put, like getting a taxi ride to low-earth orbit.”

NASA is now sending cargo to the Station using transportation services provided by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.  Yesterday’s announcement is for the far more difficult task of transporting astronauts.  Congress has expressed concern about the safety of astronauts in privately designed, owned, and operated vehicles.  NASA’s announcement stated “NASA’s expert team of engineers and spaceflight specialists is facilitating and certifying the development work of industry partners to ensure new spacecraft are safe and reliable.”  Bolden also addressed this point: “We also are confident they will be safe for NASA astronauts -- to achieve NASA certification in 2017, they must meet the same rigorous safety standards we had for the Space Shuttle Program.”  In describing the services to be provided under the Commercial Crew Transportation program a NASA document explains that the spacecraft must also be capable of safely and quickly evacuating the Station crew in the event of an emergency.  It also must be able to provide a 24-hour safe haven for astronauts and able to be docked to the Station for a minimum of 210 days.   

The maximum potential value of the firm fixed-price contracts are $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX. After one or more test flights with a single astronaut and subsequent NASA certification the contractors are required to provide between two and up to six crewed trips to the Station.   

Bolden has stressed the importance of securing American transportation to the Station.  In his March briefing on the agency’s FY 2015 request he stated “This budget keeps us on the same, steady path we have been following -- a stepping stone approach to send humans to Mars in the 2030’s. . . .  This budget ensures that the United States will remain the world's leader in space exploration and scientific discovery for years to come. The budget supports the administration’s commitment that NASA be a catalyst for the growth of a vibrant American commercial space industry, and keeps us on target to launch American astronauts from right here in the USA by 2017, ending our reliance on others to get into space and freeing us up to carry out even more ambitious missions beyond low-Earth orbit.”  The FY 2015 budget reflected this commitment with a requested increase of 21.9 percent for the Commercial Spaceflight program to $848.3 million.  Senate appropriators recommended $805.0 million for the program; the House-passed appropriations bill provided $785.0 million.

Senior members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee issued supportive statements about NASA’s announcement.  Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) stated:

“I congratulate Boeing and SpaceX on their achievements in the Commercial Crew Program. Both companies and the thousands of people they employ have a crucial task before them as they work to further U.S. space exploration. They also have a responsibility to the U.S. taxpayers who are making considerable contributions to the development of these commercial space capabilities.  As Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, I look forward to the time when we once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. The days of paying Russians $70 million per astronaut for access to the International Space Station must come to an end as soon as possible. I look forward to working with these companies and NASA, to end our reliance on foreign carriers by ensuring safe, reliable, timely, and cost effective transportation to the International Space Station. This is a good day for our nation's space program and for all Americans.”

Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) offered similar support while emphasizing, as she has at NASA hearings, her emphasis on safety:

“I want to congratulate Boeing and SpaceX on receiving these awards. With the Shuttle fleet retired, NASA has focused its human space flight priorities on the effective use of the ISS; the development of a beyond low Earth orbit exploration capability using the System Launch System and Orion crew capsule; and public/private partnerships that, if successful, will eventually allow NASA to buy services - not vehicles - to transport its astronauts to the ISS.  I am encouraged by today’s announcement as it will allow NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX to complete development, testing and certification of the needed capability.  That capability must be proven safe according to NASA requirements and it must be cost-effective given the significant investment taxpayers are being asked to make.  These partnerships are important and I look forward to monitoring their development because we need safe and reliable crew transport to allow the full and productive utilization of the ISS.  I commend NASA, its employees, and supporting contractors on reaching this important milestone, and I urge the agency to heed the thrust of the House-passed NASA Authorization Act by keeping safety as the highest priority in executing this contract and in implementing future Commercial Crew Program endeavors.”