NASA has two commercial vehicles capable of delivering cargo with this morning’s successful docking of Orbital Science Corporation’s (OSC) Cygnus Spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Both the Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which first docked to ISS in May 2012, were developed through a combination of private funds and money made available through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. These successful cargo missions along with the continuation of other NASA programs demonstrate that NASA is right on schedule for its commercial development of space travel to the ISS.
Orbital Science’s achievements are the last steps in transitioning completely from the COTS program, a development effort, to the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, under which firm, fixed-priced contracts are issued to private companies to carry cargo to the space station. SpaceX has already completed two flights under the CRS program using its Dragon capsule, and Orbital Sciences has contracts to begin doing so in the future.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program is to crew what COTS/CRS is to cargo. The program is meant to provide government funds to seed development of commercially created vehicles that can safely and affordably deliver astronauts to ISS. Similar to the cargo missions under CRS, these manned flights would be the result of firm contracts issued to the private industry under which the commercial companies would assume any performance risk.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the United States no longer has an indigenous spaceflight program capable of ferrying its astronauts to ISS. Instead, NASA must rely on Russian-made and operated Soyuz vehicles to carry its personnel into orbit at an agreed price of approximately $70 million per astronaut, per flight.
This arrangement between NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency is currently set to expire in 2017, the same year planned for manned commercial crew flights to begin under the CCDev program. It is embarrassing that the technological powerhouse that is the United States has to rely on Russia, its Cold War rival, for transportation to space. This, coupled with the recent tensions between U.S. and Russia over the Syrian conflict and Russian asylum for U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, has created a highly motivated NASA to remain on schedule for commercial development of its manned space flight program.
Currently three companies are developing competing vehicles under the CCDev contract: Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. Both Boeing and SpaceX are developing capsule vehicles, Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing a lifting-body spaceplane. Boeing has received $620 million in funding for its CST-100, a capsule capable of carrying up to seven crew members. SpaceX has used $545 million in program funds to develop a manned-mission capable version of its Dragon capsule system, the same vehicle currently running cargo missions to the space station under their Commercial Resupply Services contracts. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s development of its seven-man, reusable Dream Chaser spaceplane has benefited from over $360 million in program funding, which is expected to achieve a major milestone by the end of the year when the company will perform its first unmanned glide flight test.
Both Boeing and SpaceX’s vehicles have been announced as potential crew and cargo suppliers for Bigelow Aerospace’s BA-330 Commercial Space Station, a proposed module currently under development exclusively at private expense. This would be the first commercial space station in orbit. This parallel development to NASA’s space programs is further proof that commercial space travel is right on schedule and the next big thing in space.
Written By: Danyelle C. Overbo