By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Nov 19 (Reuters) - Despite budgetuncertainties, NASA on Tuesday issued a solicitation for acommercially operated space taxi to ferry astronauts to theInternational Space Station, an attempt to break Russia'smonopoly on crew transport by 2017.
The United States has been without a human spacetransportation system since 2011 when NASA retired itsthree-ship shuttle fleet due to high operating costs andfundamental safety questions. NASA's so-called Commercial Crewprogram is intended to address both cost and safety concerns, aswell as return the capability to fly people to space from U.S.soil.
The agency wants to be able to purchase rides on acommercial basis before the end of 2017 to fly four crewmembersto and from the station about every six months.
The new solicitation asks for proposals for final design,development, test, evaluation and certification of a human spacetransportation system, including ground operations, launch,orbital operations, return to Earth and landing.
Rather than designing a replacement space shuttle and hiringcontractors to build it, NASA decided to partner with industry,offering money, technical advice and oversight.
A precursor program for cargo ships spawned two new supplylines to the International Space Station, a $100 billionresearch outpost that flies about 250 miles (about 400 km) aboveEarth.
So far, privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, orSpaceX, has made one test flight and two cargo runs to thestation. Orbital Sciences Corp. completed its testflight in September and is preparing its first resupply missionin December.
NASA contributed about $800 million toward the development ofSpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule and forOrbital Sciences' Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule. Thecompanies also developed launch sites in Florida and Virginia,respectively, ground control stations and support services. Both firms also now offer orbital launch services commercially.
NASA followed up the development work with contracts worth acombined $3.5 billion for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to flycargo to the station.
Since 2011, SpaceX, Boeing and privately owned SierraNevada Corp. have been NASA's partners in a sister program todevelop commercial space taxis to fly astronauts to and from thestation. Since the shuttles' retirement, only Russia has thespaceships to ferry station crewmembers, a service that costsNASA more than $60 million per person.
FULL FUNDING URGED
The Obama administration is requesting $821 million forNASA's Commercial Crew program for the fiscal year that began onOct. 1.
Congress has not yet passed a 2014 budget. The Senate isproposing $775 million for Commercial Crew; the House wants tocap the program at $500 million.
"It's now critically important to get full funding fromCongress to keep us on track to begin these launches in 2017,"NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters last week.
NASA on Tuesday issued what is expected to be the last stepin the program, with the goal of having test flights in 2016 andan operational system before the end of 2017, documents postedon NASA's procurement website show.
In addition to U.S. government business, privately ownedBigelow Aerospace, among others, intends to purchase flightservices to ferry researchers, tourists and other payingpassengers to planned orbital habitats.
NASA intends to award one or two Commercial Crew contractsnext summer.
- space transportation system
- International Space Station