Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nasa backs Boeing's astronaut design

Boeing is the big winner in the competition to develop a new system to take American astronauts into orbit.

It has beaten two other companies to the lion's share of US space agency (Nasa) funds, to help complete work on a seven-crew capsule known as CST-100.

The vehicle, designed in Texas, should be flying people to the International Space Station (ISS) by late 2017.

Since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, Americans have relied on Russia for manned space transportation.

Its venerable Soyuz vehicles have been the only means of getting crew to and from the ISS.

But disagreements over Russia's actions in Ukraine have made this arrangement increasingly unpalatable for Washington.

Likewise, the price per flight now being charged by Moscow - at $70m (£43m) a seat - is seen as excessive.

The Obama administration charged Nasa in 2010 with the job of 'seeding' indigenous, competing companies to restore American capability.

Since then, the agency has released nearly $1.5bn in funding, with most of this money going to Boeing, California's SpaceX and a third firm - the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

Ideally, the agency would have liked to continue funding all three into the final phase of its commercial crew programme, but its budget is too stretched.

It has meant Nasa having to pick a favourite - in Boeing.

Both Boeing and SpaceX will now receive fixed-price, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCtCap) contracts.

The total potential contract value is $4.2bn for Boeing and $2.6bn for SpaceX.

For Boeing, this should take its CST-100 vehicle through final development and safety certification.

It also includes fees for initial crewed flights.

The CST-100 is designed to launch into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and return to Earth with the assistance of a heat shield and parachutes to a land location.

Superficially, there are similarities with the Apollo system, but the new Boeing ship's technologies are, of course, all state-of-the-art.

Many people thought SpaceX might grab a larger tranche of the funding on offer.

It already operates a rocket and capsule system in an unmanned configuration to take cargo to the ISS, and was working to upgrade the design to accommodate the more stringent assurance levels demanded of human spaceflight.

But SpaceX is unlikely to be deterred by getting second billing. It is committed to completing development of its Dragon capsule.

And it believes that its manned system will eventually turn out to be much cheaper than the one coming from the more well-established Boeing Corporation.

This could put the California company in a very strong position to win commercial launch contracts further down the road.

And even SNC has promised to fight on. It has already booked a demonstration flight on an Atlas rocket for its crew vehicle, which stands out for not being a conical capsule.

Known as the Dream Chaser, this ship looks like a mini space shuttle. And just like the famous winged orbiters, it would glide back to Earth to land on a runway.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos