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.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program tailored requirements for a new generation of human-rated spacecraft to allow industry to create innovative design solutions, manufacturing processes, operational methods and engineering techniques. The result has been a series of components, systems and now spacecraft and rockets that will soon take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in a manner that is both cost-effective and reliable.
The work began in 2010 when NASA created initial developmental agreements with several companies to begin the design and testing of subsystems, such as life support equipment, launch abort systems and spacecraft. This was followed by a progressive series of Space Act Agreements and later contracts that became more detailed for larger and more complex spacecraft and launch vehicle systems. Today, NASA has contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to build and operate systems to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
“We set out from the start to give industry as much of a clean sheet as possible so they could use their expertise to design spacecraft and launch vehicles for both our missions and for their own spaceflight plans,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “And from the outset we received very creative ideas and original approaches to development of individual systems along with new processes used to build several spacecraft in rapid succession. The companies painted for us an exciting picture of innovation and we’ve worked together to first refine our requirements and now to ensure that they are met as the crewed vehicles are taking shape.”
The systems reflect cutting-edge use of technology, including the processes used to manufacture the hardware and for the crew to interface with the systems. Examples of this innovation include touch screens to control the spacecraft, 3-D printed spacecraft engine components, advanced thermal protection systems and pusher escape launch abort systems.
“We are extremely proud to have worked with eight aerospace companies over the years through the Commercial Crew Program. It is exciting to work with Boeing and SpaceX as they prepare to carry our astronauts to the Space Station while simultaneously collaborating with Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation on their human spaceflight systems,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of Commercial Spaceflight Development. “In the last decade, we have seen the commercial human spaceflight marketplace mature. I believe in the next three to five years we will see multiple companies carrying people, not just NASA astronauts to and from space. This is an exciting time to be in the space business.”
At the heart of the innovation is an approach that is new to NASA’s human spaceflight programs, which calls on private industry to design, build and operate spacecraft and rockets along with all their related ground systems, control centers, and support infrastructure.