NASA and industry are working together to ensure safe, reliable, and affordable space transportation launching from U.S. soil by mid-decade.

NASA and its industry partners are developing a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. Through a program begun in 2006, NASA is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop these capabilities.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft berthed to the International Space Station.
Phil McAlister (left) is NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development Director at NASA Head quarters in Washington, DC. He is a veteran of the space industry with experience in civil, military, and commercial space programs. Over his career, he has participated in the design and development of new launch vehicles, the redesign of the International Space Station, plus several commercial satellite endeavors.

Recently, Phil McAlister spoke with NASA Tech Briefs about how NASA’s partnerships with industry are shaping America’s next-generation human spaceflight.

NASA Tech Briefs: Recently, NASA’s 2014 budget was announced, with $814 million earmarked for commercial spaceflight. Will that enable the current activities to continue progressing over the next 12 months?

Phil McAlister: The $814 million request lets the program continue at a level we think is required in order to establish U.S. access to space by 2017. This is what we are targeting for operational services. We are partnering with industry by providing financial and technical assistance for them. Then we will certify the vehicles and spacecraft for launching NASA personnel to the International Space Station.

Between now and 2017, we will go through the certification process that basically confirms the vehicles are safe to fly NASA personnel. There will probably be a test program as part of that certification process. There will be some number of flights or test missions, and certainly I would think at least one of those missions will be crewed. After the test phase, if all goes according to plan, we will certify one or more vehicles. Then we will begin services — basically, transporting our astronauts up and down from the International Space Station. The start of services is what we are targeting for 2017. You might see some crewed flights before 2017, but they would be part of a test program.

NASA Tech Briefs: Can you explain NASA’s commercial space programs — the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and the Commercial Orbital Transpor tation Services (COTS)?

McAlister: We have two programs: the Commercial Cargo Program (or COTS) and the Commercial Crew Program [see sidebar on page 23]. The cargo program was started in 2005 and we currently have two partners: SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. We invested, very similar to the crew program, technical and financial resources to those two companies. Last year, SpaceX finished all their test milestones and they’ve started cargo resupply services to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences is our other partner. They started about a year-and-ahalf after SpaceX, so they are a little bit behind. [Editor’s Note: At the time of this interview, Orbital had not yet testlaunched its Antares rocket. The successful launch occurred on April 21.]

For crew, it’s Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. They all have a more aggressive schedule than NASA. They believe they can fly by 2015 for SpaceX, and maybe 2016 for Boeing and Sierra Nevada. NASA feels those are very aggressive schedules, so we have tacked on a year of reserve, and are targeting 2017. But the companies believe they can get there, and we are fine with that. If it turns out they do get there quicker, we’re not going to slow them down — we’ll let them accelerate. But in terms of our commitment to the external community, we feel comfortable with 2017.

NASA Tech Briefs: NASA’s initiative to work with the private sector to “commercialize” space is a significant shift in the Agency’s traditional spacecraft development programs. What are some of the factors that led NASA to make this shift? How is this partnership different from the way NASA has always worked with private industry in the past to build spacecraft?

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft preparing to dock with the International Space Station. (Image: Boeing)
McAlister: NASA has always had as part of its mission to commercialize space. That’s actually in the NASA Space Act, so we’ve been doing that most of NASA’s history, but we’ve never really done spacecraft development this way, where we shift a lot of the responsibility to industry, particularly in the human spaceflight world. That has traditionally been the domain of NASA.

There were five contributing factors. The first one is budget. We’re in a very challenging budget environment. We have to try and do things more cost effectively. When you’re in that kind of budget environment, there is a lot of history that says industry can move faster and they can be more cost effective when they are responsible for development.

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