The administrator of NASA said Monday he expects the space agency to announce multiple awards for the next round of its commercial crew development effort by the middle of next month.
Speaking in a media telecon Monday morning, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said he expected the awards to be announced “no later than, say, mid-July or so, that’s our hope,” he said. NASA had previously indicated that the awards would come by August, but chatter in the industry suggested that timetable could be moved up based on the progress NASA was making with scheduling oral presentations by companies submitting proposals.
Bolden said later in the telecon that NASA plans to select “upwards of three companies” in this round of the program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). However, he said they would fund the equivalent of “two and a half” companies: two will get full-sized awards and a third would get a half-sized award. (Although not explicitly stated, Bolden’s language suggests that other companies could get unfunded Space Act Agreements, as was the case in the earlier rounds of the program.) That award system aligns with what Bolden and a key member of Congress, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, agreed to earlier this month as part of a deal to address the concerns Wolf had with the commercial crew program.
NASA did not disclose on the call how many companies submitted CCiCap proposals, citing the sensitive nature of the ongoing competition. It’s likely, though, that at least five major players submitted proposals, including the four companies with second round Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) funded agreements: Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX. In addition, the ATK/EADS Astrium joint venture proposing the Liberty launch vehicle, which has an unfunded CCDev-2 award from NASA, has also indicated they’ve submitted a proposal for CCDev-2.
How big these full- or half-sized awards have yet to be announced, and will depend in part on what the companies are asking for. Bolden said he will continue to push for full funding for the commercial crew program in Congress for fiscal year 2013: just under $830 million. The House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill that includes NASA, though, fund the program at $500 and $525 million, respectively. “We will ask for a significant increase in 2014 and the other years if we are to hold to the 2017 first flight for commercial crew to the International Space Station,” he said.
NASA officials also said on the telecon that, contrary to some language used in media reports about the commercial crew competition, the CCiCap awards are not a “downselect”. What that likely means is that any company will be able to submit bids for the next phase of the program after CCiCap, which will be run under more conventional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) rules. That causes some confusion since Congressional critics like Rep. Wolf had pushed NASA to downselect to even a single company going forward, something NASA objected to in order to preserve competition and redundancy.
The news about the commercial crew competition overshadowed the primary purpose of the hastily-arranged telecon, which was to announce a memorandum of understanding between NASA and the FAA regarding regulation of commercial spaceflight. For commercial cargo, and future commercial crew, missions to the ISS performed for NASA, the FAA will license the launches and reentries as they do today, with NASA taking responsibility for crew safety and mission assurance oversight. That division of labor (which does not apply to commercial cargo or crew missions that don’t involve NASA; the space agency will have no oversight role in those cases) was largely expected.