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March 12, 2012

Commercial Spacecraft Companies Ante Up on Capitol Hill

A sudden burst of Congressional ill-will towards NASA's Commercial Crew spacecraft development program has not gone unnoticed by participating companies, who will provide detailed plans and pricing to the agency in about two weeks as a part of the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Round (CCiCap) to mature systems capable of transporting U.S. astronauts.

“We have to give [NASA] milestones that will take you the way to crewed, orbital flight,” said Sierra Nevada’s John Roth. “And as a part of that, we also have to identify exactly how much money our company is investing and how much money NASA is required to invest. This will be the first time on March 23 when these proposals go in, that NASA has full visibility from all contractors on how much money we need from NASA, how much our companies include in.”

Under the banner of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), representatives from Boeing (News - Alert), Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and ULA showed up on Capitol Hill March 8 to make their case before Congressional staffers for full funding of the program in next year's budget. Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA), a strong supporter NASA and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, provided opening remarks at the beginning of the hour long panel briefing targeted to Congressional staffers. 

“It is important to note, in this [fiscal] environment, we want to think about the appropriate role of government,” Fattah said. “Here is an activity where there's really no reason for the government to compete with the private sector...We should be supporting the private sector and to put NASA on the appropriate mission of stretching the envelope in terms of deep space exploration and eventually a Mars landing.”

Fattah praised companies for their investments in the program -- all of them have contributed their own funds into the development process -- and their “stick to it-iveness” during the process.

He warned there would be “a great deal of controversy” ahead, but believes when it comes time to fashion the final appropriations bill of FY 2013 “after the November elections...there will be an opportunity for the country to think clearly about when it is we want to have the capacity, an American capacity, not one where we have to buy seats on Russian crafts. The quickest way for us to get there is through Commercial Crew. The worst way to proceed along that line is by undercutting the funding because it just delays the ability to do it ourselves and increases the amount we will have to pay our friends in Russia for seats on their spacecrafts. In terms of the common sense of this, I think it's a clear approach.”

All of the participating companies emphasized that they understood astronaut safety was an overarching priority, with spacecraft designers underling the ability to provide a crew escape mechanism with no “blackout” zones throughout a mission.

“We hope people bid to exceed safety standards,” stated Adam Harris, SpaceX (News - Alert) vice president for Government Sales.   SpaceX is in the process of developing and testing a SuperDraco thruster to be incorporated into its Dragon capsule as a part of its crew escape system.

Representing United Launch Alliance, Director of Human Spaceflight Operations Michael Leinbach discussed the two “long poles” to use the Atlas V rocket for manned missions.   Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral is not designed for manned spaceflight operations, so a crew access tower with an emergency egress capability would have to be built. ULA is much further along in putting a new emergency detection system “black box” onboard Atlas V, being about “60 percent” done.

“If Funding levels go forward, the $829 million, we could launch in three to four years, something like that,” Leinbach stated.

Sierra Nevada chose to emphasize its corporate profile, being privately-held company in operation for over 50 years and the space business for 25 years. Last year, the company had $1.5 billion in business and has no long-term debt.

Commercial crew has been “a poster child” for well-run programs, said Roth, vice president of Business Development for Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “It's a firm-fixed price contract,” he said. “You not hit milestones, you don't get paid. There's no way to [cost] overrun the program.”

Roth noted his company was funding research for its Dream Chaser spaceplane at 8 NASA centers and employed people in 29 states.

Rounding out the presentations, Boeing Deputy Program Manager Keith Reiley emphasized the CST-100's shared technology heritage with the more elaborate Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). He also said it was “quite possible” to fly Boeing's capsule on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, even though the company will use ULA's Atlas V for initial flight test and verification flights.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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