By Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.
After a nearly two-year-long search, in January 2016 NASA announced the winners of its second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts. Two of the winners, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, already had contracts under the first CRS program, making their wins entirely unsurprising. Although not considered a favorite in the competition, Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) also won an award.
SNC’s win was not entirely a surprise. About one year into NASA’s search for CRS-2 contractors, reports indicated that Lockheed Martin’s Exoliner had been dropped from the competition, while Boeing’s CST-100 was eliminated a month later – leaving SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada as the only competitors.
Only two contractors were expected to be selected, but NASA wanted to increase redundancy in case of launch failures. This is particularly important with the retirement of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), leaving Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and Russia’s Progress as the only international cargo ships available. The importance of redundancy was further illustrated when Progress, Cygnus, and Dragon capsules all failed to reach the International Space Station (ISS) within nine months of each other.
It is unclear exactly how much money SNC will receive under the CRS-2 contract. NASA indicates that the total value of all contracts between 2016 and 2024 could reach $14 billion; however, the agency does not say how much will go to each contractor. Of the three winners, only Orbital ATK has revealed how much it expects to receive under its contract, putting the figure at between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion.
NASA does note that the total money spent on the program will likely be less than the $14 billion mentioned in the contract announcement. NASA will order missions based on its needs at the time, with costs varying along with the different mission types.
SNC, for example, is offering NASA two different mission profile types. Under the first type, a Dream Chaser will dock directly to the ISS using its own guidance controls. Under the other type, the space vehicle will berth with the ISS after being grappled by the space station’s robotic arm.
No matter which mission profile is selected, SNC is scheduled to conduct six cargo delivery service missions between 2019 and 2024.
NASA’s original CRS program began in 2008 and will run through 2016. Under the program, the space agency awarded $1.6 billion to SpaceX and $1.9 billion to Orbital Sciences (which is now part of Orbital ATK). The awards originally called for 12 SpaceX flights and eight Orbital Sciences flights. Flights were later increased by three and one, respectively, and are now planned to continue through 2018.
In February 2014, NASA began the process of creating a follow-on to the CRS program. Five companies submitted proposals, including incumbents SpaceX and Orbital ATK. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corp also submitted bids.
Sierra Nevada Corp’s bid centered around the Dream Chaser. The Dream Chaser traces its roots to U.S. programs in the 1980s that studied a developmental Russian spaceplane called the BOR-4. NASA liked the design and intended to use it to build an emergency escape vehicle for the planned Space Station Freedom. However, when the U.S. joined the International Space Station project, Russia’s Soyuz capsule took over that role. In the 1990s a private company called SpaceDev bought the rights to the so-called HL-20.
Sierra Nevada Corp purchased SpaceDev in 2008 and used the HL-20, now called the Dream Chaser, as the basis for its bid on NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. SNC met with success in that program through its early stages, winning $312.5 million in contracts to continue development between 2010 and 2012. However, in September 2014, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX had won awards to begin production of their crew vehicles and fly NASA astronauts to the space station, leaving SNC’s Dream Chaser without a major customer.
Almost immediately, SNC reacted to save the program. In March 2015 the company unveiled plans for a crewless Dream Chaser and entered the spaceplane into NASA’s CRS-2 competition. SNC also signed a cooperation agreement with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) a month later, reducing its reliance on NASA.
Human Spaceflight Market
With the CRS-2 win, Sierra Nevada Corp will now receive a large amount of cash flow that will be a boon to the Dream Chaser program. With its launch customer secured, the company can begin production. With human spaceflight attracting increased attention in the commercial market, SNC will have an advantage by having a space transport vehicle already in production.
There are many competitors in the human spaceflight market, including Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace, and others. The companies that have vehicles in production as well as operations with paying customers will have a distinct advantage in this field. Sierra Nevada Corp now joins the likes of SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Boeing with a large customer in NASA.