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As NASA's commercial crew decision draws nigh, confusion and angst still abide

 Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems Dream Chaser prototype
Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems Dream Chaser prototype Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A Sunday story on NBC News reports that NASA is drawing nigh to the final selection of two commercially run, government financed spacecraft that will take human astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In the running are the Dragon V2 from SpaceX, the CST-100 from Boeing, and the Dream Chaser from Sierra Nevada. In the meantime, the Huffington Post suggests that there is still angst and confusion about NASA’s commercial crew program, which doles out subsidies for nominally commercial spacecraft.

Two of the contenders are space capsules in the style of the old Apollo spacecraft. The Dragon V2 will be a piloted version of the Dragon cargo ship that is already taking supplies to and from the ISS. Boeing is offering the CST-100 which, unlike the Dragon, has yet to fly in any form.

The Sierra Nevada Dream is a lift body vehicle that would be launched vertically on top of a commercial rocket but would land like an aircraft, much like the space shuttle orbiter did. It is distinguished from its two competitors in the coolness factor. The ride home on the Dream Chaser would inflict far fewer G forces on its passengers than the Dragon or the CST-100.

Meanwhile there seems to be a kind of confusion about what the purpose of the commercial crew program is. Its stated purpose is to fund a commercially operated space craft to service the International Space Station, thus ending NASA’s reliance on the Russian Soyuz, a growing imperative considering Russia’s increasing belligerence in the Ukraine and other areas. Fostering a commercial launch industry has not been a consideration under the Obama administration. This has given Greg Autry, an economics professor, some heart burn.

“Framed in the topsy-turvy world of military-industrial-complex thinking, the focus of the discussion was on how the private sector could be supported if it met NASA's needs. It is as though the reason for supporting a market economy is to deliver services to a government agency, rather than seeing the purpose of the agency as fostering economic growth that will generate jobs and taxable revenues in its sector. Imagine the state of air travel if the FAA built the aircraft and treated private firms as its vassals. I suspect it would look a lot like Amtrak, but with more accidents.”

The analogy is not exactly real. The FAA is a regulatory agency which has considerable control over how aircraft and now commercial spacecraft are built and operated. NASA is behaving just like any customer of a commercial service would by making requirements of what kind of service is going to be delivered. Commercial space would no more be a “vassal” to NASA than would charter air services are to the military, which uses them extensively. The difference is that NASA is paying almost all of the development costs for these new commercial spacecraft.

Autry also offers some snark about the heavy lift Space Launch System, which he describes as “pork barrel.” In this he demonstrates some of the confusion that many commercial space advocates have about the SLS. The heavy lift launcher is meant to service NASA’s deep space exploration needs and is not a competitor for the commercial crew program. Nor is there any commercial alternatives for heavy lift, a crucial part of any missions beyond low Earth orbit.

In the meantime, the three contenders are looking at how to truly commercialize their spacecraft beyond servicing NASA. SpaceX is bravely suggesting that it will continue on with Dragon V2 even if it does not get the ISS contract. Space tourism and servicing commercial space stations such as those planned by Bigelow Aerospace are possibilities. Sierra Nevada has forged some alliances in Europe and Japan. This sets up the possibility that it can provide space transportation services to foreign governments.

Boeing has previously suggested that it would not continue with the CST-100 if it does not get the NASA contract. This is a pattern often followed with big aerospace. But it now may be backtracking on that, suggesting that there might be a business case for a commercial CST-100 yet, perhaps as an autonomous cargo ship.

In any case NASA’s final decision is expected in the next few weeks.