Boeing on test pilots, FAR-vs-SAA, and more

Last Thursday, as most expected, Boeing announced it had selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket to launch its CST-100 commercial crew vehicle, at least for a series of three test flights in 2015. (John Elbon, Boeing’s program manager for the CST-100, said that the company would recompete launches for the operational CST-100 missions, if funded, although barring any problems ULA would seem to have the inside track in that recompete.) The announcement, though, did offer some insights on Boeing’s plans and thoughts about NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program in general.

Of the three test flights using the Atlas 5 (a fourth will be a pad abort test that won’t require a launch vehicle), only one will be crewed: the last flight, which will place the CST-100 in orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. Elbon noted that two Boeing test pilots would fly that mission. Boeing hasn’t hired any test pilots, but Elbon said that they were in the process of selecting their first, who would participate in the CST-100 development to provide a pilot’s perspective. “We’re just starting the interview process,” he said. “Of course, it’s interesting to look at flown astronauts as candidates for this, and certainly we’ll consider that as we make selections. They could also be test pilots, maybe, that haven’t flown in space, or some mix of all that.”

Boeing isn’t the only company to select the Atlas 5 for commercial crew launches: two of the other three CCDev-2 awardees, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation, also have proposed launching their spacecraft on that vehicle. (SpaceX, of course, plans to use its own Falcon 9 for its crewed Dragon spacecraft.) George Sowers of ULA said part of the contract with Boeing covers work on the Atlas 5 launch site at Cape Canaveral to allow for crew access in and out of the vehicle on the pad. That work, Sowers noted, would not be specific to the CST-100 but could also support Blue Origin’s and Sierra Nevada’s vehicles. “Our preference is to have something that we could attach to the existing mobile launch platform, and not have to build a dedicated tower or gantry,” Sowers said.

Elbon also touched upon other burning issues regarding CCDev: the contracting mechanism and funding for the program. Last month NASA officials said they were tentatively planning to shift from a Space Act Agreement (SAA) to a contract that would still have some of the features of an SAA but also adhere to Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). That has generated an outcry of opposition from many companies, concerned about being overwhelmed with contracting bureaucracy and worried this could be a first step towards moving to traditional cost-plus contracts.

Elbon took a more nuanced view to the debate. “I think it’s unfortunate that the debate is centered around the contract mechanism and is not focused on the attributes that whatever mechanism is put in place needs to have,” he said, adding that he believes an SAA-based or FAR-based approach can be successful if those attributes are there. The biggest issue, he said, is who is responsible for design decisions: “The design decisions in this current environment rest with us as the developer,” he said, referring to the SAA-based CCDev-2 award Boeing currently is working out. ‘We can move much more rapidly through the design process by being able to make those decisions internally and not go through a series of boards and panels that vet things in the NASA system and then work contract changes to cause those things to happen.”

Another issue, he said, is ownership of the intellectual property (IP) involved in the development effort. “If truly our objective here is to develop a commercial market, it’s important that we retain the intellectual property so that we can use that vehicle for other purposes” beyond flying NASA astronauts to and from the ISS, as well as to keep that IP out of the hands of potential competitors.

“The debate really needs to be centered on what those things are and figuring out how to carry those things going forward,” he said of the key attributes for CCDev contracts. “I’m really disappointed in the direction that the debate took in the press conference” that unveiled NASA’s plans last month.

Regarding CCDev funding, Elbon expressed concerned about potential FY2012 budget cuts. What’s in the president’s budget request—$850 million a year from 2012 through 2016—is “in the neighborhood of what it would take to make this program successful,” he said, “so I would hope Congress would consider funding the program at or near those levels.” However, the House is proposing only $312 million for CCDev in 2012 in its appropriation bill awaiting consider by the full House. Funding has already had an effect on Boeing’s plans: Elbon noted that their initial test flight plans “was based on a different level of CCDev-2 funding that we received,” causing the company to push back its test schedule slightly. “There’s been about a quarter’s worth of impact due to the funding that came out of CCDev-2 as we went forward.”

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