Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NASA set to fund space taxi systems

CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA next year will fund the development of at least two space taxi systems that could return astronauts to orbit aboard U.S. vehicles by late 2016.

The agency this week released draft terms of a contract that aims to complete designs of those systems by 2014, after which one or more would be chosen for a follow-up phase that builds and tests vehicles.

The draft request for proposals proves the agency's commitment "to outsource our space station transportation so NASA can focus its energy and resources on deep space exploration," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

Potential providers of the outsourced crew flights, which would launch from the Space Coast, have a month to review and comment on the draft before a final version is released late this year.

A SpaceX spokesman said the company was still reviewing the draft language.

SpaceX is one of the four companies that shared nearly $270 million in NASA funding this year to advance designs of spacecraft able to fly people to and from the International Space Station.

Blue Origin, The Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems were the others.

The next contract phase intends to develop integrated transportation
systems, combining spacecraft with launch vehicles, escape systems and all the ground systems necessary to launch at least four astronauts to the station.

Expected to be awarded next summer, the next contract phase could be worth $1.6 billion between 2012 and 2014, NASA says.

But actual funding could be significantly lower than the total proposed in the Obama administration's 2012 budget.

Some companies and commercial space advocates fear limited funding and NASA's new contracting strategy could slow or derail the development program.

"From a technical standpoint (the companies) are proceeding well, but there's a concern about both the future funding and how the contracting is going to be structured in this next phase," said Jeff Foust, an industry analyst with Futron Corp.

NASA last week announced it would abandon the use of more simple Space Act Agreements in favor of federal contracts that some companies consider more costly and bureaucratic.

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