The Commercial Crew Development program

The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) is a multi-phase, space technology development program that is funded by the U.S. government and administered by NASA. Part of the NASA Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO: COTS, CRS, and CCDev), formally established in November 2005, which represented the culmination of years, even decades, of initiatives to encourage the growth of the private spaceflight sector, the program is intended to stimulate development of privately operated crew vehicles to be launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

As stated on NASA’s website, “NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transportation capabilities. The Program manages Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partnership agreements with U.S. industry totalling eight hundred million American dollars for commercial cargo transportation demonstrations. The Program also invested fifty million American dollars in initial commercial crew development activities”.

In 2010, in the first phase of the program, NASA provided fifty million American dollars combined to five American companies; the money was intended for research and development into private-sector human spaceflight concepts and technologies. NASA solicited a second set of CCDev proposals for technology development projects lasting for a maximum of fourteen months in October of that year. In April 2011, NASA announced they would award up to nearly two hundred and seventy million American dollars to four companies as they met their CCDev 2 objectives.

NASA awarded Space Act Agreements for the third phase, named CCiCap, in August 2012; this would last until 2014. CCiCap is followed by CCtCap with Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 15 contracts, which formed the fourth and final phase of the program. Contracts were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing in September 2014. The first group of astronauts assigned to fly on the two selected spacecraft were announced on August 3, 2018.

Space Act Agreements

Abbreviated SAA, Space Act Agreements, which are involved in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, are a type of legal agreement specified in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (and subsequent congressional authorisations) that uniquely empowers NASA to work with any entity that enables fulfilment of the Administration’s mandate. ENACTMENT OF TITLE 51—NATIONAL AND COMMERCIAL SPACE PROGRAMS, Public Law 111–314 (111th Congress): “In the performance of its functions, the Administration is authorized, without regard to subsections (a) and (b) of section 3324 of title 31, to enter into and perform such contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other transactions as may be necessary in the conduct of its work and on such terms as it may deem appropriate, with any agency or instrumentality of the United States, or with any State, territory, or possession, or with any political subdivision thereof, or with any person, firm, association, corporation, or educational institution”. The Agency enters into SAAs with various partners to advance NASA mission and program objectives, including international cooperative space activities.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)

The Department of Defense (DoD), GSA, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) jointly issue the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) for use by executive agencies in acquiring goods and services. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) is the principal set of rules in the Federal Acquisition Regulations System regarding government procurement in the United States, and is codified at Chapter 1 of Title 48 of the Code of Federal Regulations, 48 C.F.R. 1.

The FAR System governs the “acquisition process” by which executive agencies of the United States federal government acquire (i.e., purchase or lease) goods and services by contract with appropriated funds. The process consists of three phases: 1. Need recognition and acquisition planning; 2. Contract formation; and 3. Contract administration. The FAR System regulates the activities of government personnel in carrying out that process.

While nearly all federal government executive agencies are required to comply with the FAR, some executive agencies are exempt (e.g., the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Mint). In those cases, the agency promulgates its own specific procurement rules. The remainder of the FAR System consists mostly of sets of regulations issued by executive agencies of the federal government of the United States to supplement the FAR.

The Commercial Crew Development program

The Commercial Crew Development program requirements include: 1. Deliver and return four crew members and their equipment to International Space Station (ISS); 2. Provide assured crew return in the event of an emergency; 3. Serve as a 24-hour safe haven in the event of an emergency; 4. Capable of remaining docked for two hundred and ten days (the American Space Shuttle could only remain docked for a maximum of twelve days).

On NASA’s website, we read: “NASA spacecraft have long pushed the envelope on technological achievement, whether they carried astronauts into the vacuum of space the first time or tailored a robotic rover to explore a distant world. The Commercial Crew Program maintains those traits while helping to produce a sustainable model for spaceflight that serves NASA’s needs while including elements such as production efficiency, reusability and life-cycle costs”.

Under CCDev 1, NASA has entered into funded Space Act Agreements with several companies working on technologies and systems for human spaceflight. Funding was provided as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A total of fifty million American dollars for 2010 was awarded to five American companies with the intention of fostering research and development into human spaceflight concepts and technologies in the private sector. NASA awarded development funds to five companies under CCDev 1: Blue Origin for a Launch Escape System (LES) or Launch Abort System (LAS) (a crew safety system connected to a space capsule, used to quickly separate the capsule from its launch vehicle rocket in case of a launch abort emergency, such as an impending explosion); Boeing for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner (Crew Space Transportation) crew capsule; Paragon Space Development Corporation for a plug-and-play Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS); Sierra Nevada Corporation for development of the Dream Chaser (an American reusable lifting body spaceplane); United Launch Alliance for an Emergency Detection System (EDS) for human-rating its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).

NASA sought a second set of Commercial Crew Development proposals in October 2010. These could be both new concepts and proposals that mature the design and development of system elements, such as launch vehicles and spacecraft. The Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative is the third round of the CCDev program and was originally called CCDev 3. For this phase of the program, NASA wanted proposals to be complete, end-to-end designs including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations, and recovery. In September 2011, NASA released a draft Request For Proposals (RFP). A request for proposal (RFP) is a document that solicits proposal, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, service, or valuable asset, to potential suppliers to submit business proposals. It is submitted early in the procurement cycle, either at the preliminary study, or procurement stage.

The U.S. government’s was originally intended to use a new contracting mechanism for CCiCap that differed from the Space Act Agreement’s fixed-price, milestone-based contracts of the previous phases. As of October 2011, NASA was planning to award competitive contracts under the more traditional Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) system instead of using Space Act Agreements. After some months of planning for the new-style contracting approach, NASA announced in mid-December 2011 it would resume use of Space Act Agreements because of Congressional funding reductions to the program for Fiscal Year 2012. The final RFP was released on February 7, 2012, with proposals due on March 23, 2012. Winners of funding in the third round of the Commercial Crew Development program, announced on August 3, 2012, were: Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and Boeing. NASA reported that as of November 2014, Boeing had completed all of its CCiCap milestones.

The first phase of the Certification Products Contract (CPC) involved the review of the integrated crew transportation systems through the creation of a certification plan that would result in the development of engineering standards, tests and analyses of the systems’ designs. The second phase of the CPC was expected to begin in mid-2014; it would involve a full and open competition and would include the final development, testing and verifications to allow crewed demonstration flights to the ISS. Phase 2 is called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). NASA issued the draft CCtCap contract’s Request For Proposals (RFP) on July 19, 2013. On September 16, 2014, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX had received contracts to provide crewed launch services to the ISS.

As of December 2014, both SpaceX and Boeing had started work on their Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts. As of January 2017, NASA has ordered twelve commercial post-certification missions to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Crew Dragon Demo-1

Crew Dragon Demo-1, officially known as SpaceX Demo-1 and Crew Demo-1, was the first orbital test of the Dragon 2 spacecraft. This first spaceflight was an uncrewed mission that launched on March 2, 2019 and arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on March 3, a little over twenty-four hours after the launch. The mission ended following a successful splashdown on March 8, 2019. On April 20, 2019, the capsule used on Crew Demo-1 was unexpectedly destroyed during a test of the SuperDraco engines at Landing Zone 1.

The spacecraft, launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket contracted by NASA’s commercial crew program, tested the approach and automated docking procedures with the International Space Station (ISS), consequent undocking from the ISS, full re-entry, splashdown and recovery steps to provide data requisite to subsequently qualify for flights transporting humans to the ISS. Life support systems were being monitored all along the test flight. The same capsule will be re-used later for an in-flight abort test. Instead of carrying astronauts to the ISS, this flight had an Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD) wearing SpaceX’s custom flight suit. The ATD is named Ripley, as a homage to Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien movies franchise.