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NASA Picks 5 Firms To Work On LEO Tech 116

Posted by timothy
from the quasi-private-at-best dept.
Gary W. Longsine writes "Five contracts have been awarded by NASA today, to firms exploring different aspects of the effort to develop a private launch industry for people to low earth orbit. Today's winners include: Sierra Nevada Corp (aka 'SpaceDev') for the Dream Chaser; Boeing in cooperation with Bigelow on a capsule design; United Launch Alliance (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) to explore safety issues related to upgrading Atlas and Delta rockets to human flight safety standards; Blue Origin to build a launch escape system; and Paragon Space Development Corp for 'air vitalization' (aka life support). Will the forecast $6 Billion allocation over five years be enough to inspire private industry to develop not one, but two human rated launch systems (a capsule, and the lifting body Dream Chaser)? NASA clearly wants competition in the private market, so they seek more than one vendor."
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NASA Picks 5 Firms To Work On LEO Tech

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  • by assemblerex (1275164) * on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @03:41PM (#31013858)
    Billion dollar companies will buy up these small entities and we'll be back to $2billion launches in no time...
    • by khallow (566160) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @04:19PM (#31014274)

      Billion dollar companies will buy up these small entities and we'll be back to $2billion launches in no time...

      And the people that created a new launch business are amply rewarded. Existence of an exit strategy, even if it's just getting bought out by a big player trying to maintain an oligopoly, is a necessary precondition for venture capital funding.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Alinabi (464689)
        Only in this case the funding does not come from venture capitalists, but rather from taxpayers who will see no benefit once we are back to $2 billion launches, so your point is moot.
        • by khallow (566160)

          Only in this case the funding does not come from venture capitalists, but rather from taxpayers who will see no benefit once we are back to $2 billion launches, so your point is moot.

          Well, sure all points are arguable (that is, "moot"). That's not at all a useful observation to make. Perhaps you ought to look at where the initial funding comes from. That's VC territory. Also, who is charging two billion dollars for a launch? Nobody on the planet.

          • by Alinabi (464689)
            Moot is, originally, a legal term meaning "of no significance". Exit strategies in the context discussed are of no significance, because the money does not come from venture capitalists but from taxpayers (via NASA).
            • The possibility of a lucrative exit allows the smaller companies to attract the sort of talent that is necessary to actually deliver the technology that NASA is looking for. This is hardly irrelevant.

        • Billions for NASA, With a Push to Find New Ways to Space [nytimes.com]

          "After spending $9 billion on Constellation, the program to return to the moon, canceling the contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alliant Techsystems and other companies would cost an additional $2.5 billion, NASA officials said."

          Well, it might be the case that some of the funding will come from private companies. I think that's the intent, anyway. NASA seems to have $6 Billion over five years allocated to development of commercial crew trans

    • by FlightTest (90079)

      Some of those small companies (Blue Origin and Space/X off the top of my head) are already owned by billionaires. What can Boeing offer Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos?

    • by mosb1000 (710161)
      I don't think anybody's going to be buying up Boeing and Lockheed Martin anytime soon.
    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      Billion dollar companies will buy up these small entities and we'll be back to $2billion launches in no time...

      I think that's the first time I've ever heard somebody describe Boeing as a "small entity." Their Delta IV rocket can lift more payload to orbit than the Space Shuttle (and has been doing so for several years), at a price an order of magnitude lower than the Shuttle's.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      But with a bottom-up design instead of a top-down. Safety and innovation will be the winners there.
  • I first read the Headline, my brain told me "LEGO TECH", and I was momentarily excited.

    • by CAFED00D (1337179)
      Extra points for the correct usage of "momentarily".
      • by wwfarch (1451799)
        Is momentarily really misused that often? I can't say that I've noticed it. Do you have any examples of what you've seen?
        • by CAFED00D (1337179)
          I believe the correct usage should mean "for a moment," while it's commonly used to mean "in a moment." Many people will say "I'll be with you momentarily." In this case, the intended meaning is the latter.
  • A new capsule... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Cochonou (576531) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @04:05PM (#31014138) Homepage
    There are parts of this plan that really sound fishy to me. But of course, we do not have yet the full information about it.
    Charles Boden says they are taking the "flexible path" drafted in the Augustine Report [nasa.gov] and not by any stretch bailing out of human spaceflight. Yet, they are cancelling the whole Constellation Project, consisting in the launchers (Ares I and V) and the capsule (Orion), while the Augustine panel had specifically kept the Orion capsule in all the flexible path options. Actually, they thought any redesign of the capsule would cause an unwanted setback of more than a year.
    So now, we are redesigning again a capsule from scratch. I do not see how this implementation of the "flexible path" approach is going to give us any time (or money) benefits regarding the capsule. Are we supposed to put the astronauts directly on the top of the rockets ?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by natehoy (1608657)

      The Orion was being developed by Lockheed-Martin, but Boeing already has an Orion-like capsule design. So this may be more of a lateral move from one company to another than a setback.

      I'm sure there's some good reason for moving from L-M to Boeing for that work. Not sure exactly what it would be, but I'm certain there's a valid reason. If only we could guess...

      On a completely unrelated historical side note, did you know that Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2001? In an amazing coinc

    • by khallow (566160)
      Something to keep in mind here is that Lockheed Martin has been run ragged with a unending dribble of substantial changes to the Orion capsule driven by the Ares I and its limitations. Further, the Orion was originally designed just out of reach of the Delta IV Heavy (probably by intent). Given the ugly skeletons in Orion's past, I'm not surprised that the Obama administration thought a redo would be better.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by rijrunner (263757)

      Umm. The Augustine Commission report clearly states that Orion is overdesigned and should be scaled back and that EELV-derivatives would significantly reduce the costs of development, they just felt it may have been too late for that. That part was a judgement call on whether you wanted to keep funding or bite the bullet. The Boeing capsule listed is the Orion scaled properly to existing vehicles. It isn't like we have a bunch of Orion capsules sitting around and going to get thrown away. T

      • by Cochonou (576531)
        Well, here is one of the relevant parts of the report. Interpret it how you like:

        The Committee also examined the design and development of Orion. Many concepts are possible for crew-exploration vehicles, and NASA clearly needs a new spacecraft for travel beyond low-Earth orbit. The Committee found no compelling evidence that the current design will not be acceptable for its wide variety of tasks in the exploration pro- gram. However, the Committee is concerned about Orion’s recurring costs. The
        • by rijrunner (263757)

          Its Boeing's OSP proposal.

          The long pole in the development cycle was Ares, not the capsule. The capsule really could not go into final design until Ares settled down in terms of weight and they were a long way off.

          They can start designing tomorrow for this with a fixed target. That alone is a huge gain.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by camperdave (969942)
      Look at it this way: The army doesn't design tanks. They just outline what they want, and then some company says "We can make that tank. It will cost $X". Similarly, NASA should no longer be designing rockets, capsules, etc. They should just be outlining what they want and having companies bidding on it. NASA was getting too deep into the design process, and it was bogging them down.
    • by baKanale (830108)
      I don't think they're scrapping the Orion capsule entirely. Bigelow is working on the Orion Lite [wikipedia.org], a lighter version of the Orion that strips all the features not needed for LEO operations. Of course, since it's designed for flights up to the ISS or other potential space stations, not deeper space missions.

      My question is, since the Dream Chaser seems to be designed for that same niche, are they supporting both so they can have their pick of crew vehicles in case one doesn't pan out, or is there another
      • My question is, since the Dream Chaser seems to be designed for that same niche, are they supporting both so they can have their pick of crew vehicles in case one doesn't pan out, or is there another reason?

        These contracts were awarded as part of NASA's CCDev [nasa.gov] program. The purpose is to stimulate the market, and can be thought of more as research grant than being paid to deliver a product. The amounts awarded will give the companies enough money to fully flush out their design and begin prototyping. The idea is that as they get closer to completion NASA will pick the best one to fully fund for actual production and use.

        • "as they get closer to completion NASA will pick the best one to fully fund for actual production"

          Maybe... that's definitely how NASA previously ran these things, when there were design competitions, and when NASA funded the vehicle development (and influenced the final designs), and then cancelled the program before it could be completed (which they did several times). However, it's not totally clear that this is what NASA has in mind, for CCDev. There are indications that NASA wants a private market,

      • by downix (84795)

        Redundancy, not being tied to any single entity, plus practicality, as each does a different job. And I'd note, there are three crew delivery systems listed, Orion Lite, Dragon, and DreamChaser. The advantages to each are dependent on what you do with them. Dragon is a stipped down capsule, quick n dirty. Orion Lite, even with the beyond LEO functions removed, is a beefier entity with the ability for longer-term functionality as well as more cargo capability. DreamChaser is a miniature space station on

    • Government sponsored = fishy. I don't see the problem here unless you want to consider, my money being confiscated to do something I don't want to finance. Oh wait, my grandchildren will finance.
    • It seems the path isn't clear because the outcome hasn't been determined, yet. NASA seems to be funding the CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) [nasa.gov] program at a level far too modest to result in construction of actual hardware suitable for a test flight, at this point. They are dangling the the same carrot they did last year with COTS, that NASA will buy crewed flights from commercial industry. Nobody took it seriously when the requirement was issued in full Valley-Girl Voice: "fly our astronauts to the ISS
    • by sconeu (64226)

      Ares-1 was a clusterf**k. But we need Ares-V. Nobody has a Saturn V class launcher anymore, including the Russians.

      Also, what is the US going to do for manned launches until Dragon and Dream Chaser are ready? Or are we going to have to beg for rides from the Russians and Chinese (and maybe India, too)?

      • by FleaPlus (6935)

        Also, what is the US going to do for manned launches until Dragon and Dream Chaser are ready?

        What was the US going to do until the Ares I was ready to launch in 2017-2019, and Ares V was ready in the 2030s? That's what we had with the old program.

      • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

        We need a heavy-lift vehicle (HLV,) not Ares V. Ares V at this point is a paper rocket, not much more than a concept study, and one that made more sense when it could leverage technology from Ares I. What this budget includes is $3B over 5 years to support technology development related to heavy lift, something thats been neglected for decades. In 5 years, if the commercial infrastructure is in place and if this research leads to significant improvements, the design space will be considerably different --

      • W had killed the shuttle and bought rides on Air Russia several years ago. Basically, whether we go up with China, or on an extended Shuttle, we will still pay Russia for our seats. OTH, in about 2-3 years, we will have MULTIPLE private launch companies that are doing cargo AND humans, and we will never have this problem again. Sadly, we did this once before. Nixon killed the Apollo systems and then underfunded the Shuttle. We lost skylab because of that foul up.
    • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

      by QuantumG (50515) *

      Did you actually read the report? It's dishonest to act like you have when its pretty clear you haven't.

      Oh, and it's The Flexible Path To Mars.. I know everyone is so freakin' lazy that they can't even write 9 more letters but they really do add something don't ya think?

    • It said that the CONSTELLATION PROJECT is dead. That is all. It said that NASA was not going to fund building of the orion DIRECTLY. And as to either Ares, NONE OF THE COMPANIES INVOLVED WOULD WANT TO DO THOSE. Heck, even ATK COULD fund it themselves and build it, and capture human contracts RIGHT AWAY. Yet, they will not. The reason? Because it is cheaper to fly spaceX, even Russian, then Ares.
  • by bradley13 (1118935) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @04:25PM (#31014344) Homepage

    Study this, investigate that, make sure there is a contractor in every important Congressional district. Sick.

    They ought to just pay for performance: We need X tons put into orbit no later than date Y, and we'll pay you this much to do it. Pick a payment that is half of what they are going to spend the "big government" way, and the contractors will still make a whopping profit.

    Of course, that wouldn't put pork in the right pockets...

    • by goodmanj (234846) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @04:39PM (#31014508)

      Don't forget to add "if you break our cargo, you pay for it."

      If you want space transport to work like a trucking business, you should pay for it the way you pay a trucking business.

      If you want space transport to work like a bottomless money black hole, you should fund it like a bottomless money black hole.

      You get what you pay for, and what you get depends on *how* you pay.

      • by toastar (573882)

        Don't forget to add "if you break our cargo, you pay for it."

        If you want space transport to work like a trucking business, you should pay for it the way you pay a trucking business.

        If you want space transport to work like a bottomless money black hole, you should fund it like a bottomless money black hole.

        You get what you pay for, and what you get depends on *how* you pay.

        If only we funded NASA the Way we funded the Pentagon

        • by dargaud (518470)

          If only we funded NASA the Way we funded the Pentagon

          You mean by killing people and taking their possessions ?!?

    • by 2short (466733)

      X tons into orbit on date Y is already available via commercial launch companies. The amount of competition in this market, and it's entanglement with government and politics are not in any sense beyond critique, but basically, if you want to put some mass in a particular orbit, you can get a price for that.

      The question here is human space flight. We could say "We need X people put into Low Earth Orbit no later than date Y..." but the problem is that we don't. If we're paying for performance, we should
  • Yarrrr (Score:3, Interesting)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @04:33PM (#31014428) Homepage

    For some reason I misread "private" as "pirate". Which got me thinking.. How long do we have until there are Space Pirates?

    It may sound far-fetched, but once the value of payload(s) exceeds the cost of launch by some degree, I believe it's inevitable that we'll see criminal involvement. Treaties against the weaponization of space, slow response times, and the ability to drop off both crew and payloads virtually anywhere in the world all make space piracy a potentially lucrative enterprise. It's debatable whether any existing laws would even provide for the prosecution of such activity. Maybe John Carmack is really the next Blackbeard!

    Whoever the first organization is, and I'm not condoning or trivializing the potential for wanton death and destruction caused by Space Piracy, but I sincerely hope they talk like pirates.

    • by jgtg32a (1173373)

      There aren't any treaties banning weapons in space, only WMDs

      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        A potato chip tossed out of an orbiting spacecraft is an 18,500 mph weapon of mass destruction to anyone in a crossing orbit. Any treaty banning weapons in space is meaningless. All you need is the capability to get to space and you have a weapon.

    • The cost of the payloads already exceed the launch cost, by rather a lot. That's why people are willing to pay $10,000 to get a pound of stuff into orbit. The real trick is getting the cost of a pound to orbit down, and down substantially. That way Space Pirates can afford to get there, too.
  • We'll need LEOs to police LEO!
  • by RevWaldo (1186281) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @05:02PM (#31014772)
    - Peter Pan. I'm captain of the Dream Catcher. Grumpy Bear here tells me you're lookin' for passage to the Aslan system?
    - Yes indeed, if it's a fast ship.
    - Fast ship? You've never heard of the Dream Catcher?
    - Should I have?
    - It's the ship that made the Emerald City Run in less than twelve cowznofskis. I've outrun Middle Kingdom dragons. Not the local luckdragons mind you, I'm talking about the big Morgoth-bred firedrakes now. She's fast enough for you old wizard.
  • Toward the end of Administrator Bolden's presentation at the National Press Club [youtube.com] (0:48:40) he mentioned that "game changing technology enables us to go to Mars in days, not months". Is this grounded in any reasonable expectation of propulsion development over even the next several decades?

    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      Toward the end of Administrator Bolden's presentation at the National Press Club (0:48:40) he mentioned that "game changing technology enables us to go to Mars in days, not months". Is this grounded in any reasonable expectation of propulsion development over even the next several decades?

      As this was an off-the-cuff response to a question, I'm guessing this he misspoke. On a number of occasions though he's spoken about getting to Mars in a matter of weeks, which is potentially quite doable with technologies like VASIMR, particularly if you launch your lander and return spacecraft to Mars orbit or Phobos separately.

      • If we have the power, a 7 to 9 month trip would be in 1.5 month. That is less than 40 days, compared to many months.
    • VASIMR. This was originally started by NASA, but the republican congress prohibited NASA from working on it, so they spun it off. VASIMR will require lots of electricity, so, this will require a nuke. But, vasimr is not only feasible, but will probably be the main way that we get around the solar system for some time.
  • by tomhath (637240) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 @05:50PM (#31015340)

    Blue Origin: A normally secretive team established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos...

    How much does NASA have to send into orbit before they get free shipping?

  • It's worth noting that NASA is only able to award $50 million this year due to interference by Congress. They had initially wanted $150M in commercial seed funding, but most of this was diverted by Congress [spacepolitics.com] -- in particularly Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Al) -- towards the soon-to-be-cancelled Constellation project.

    • by Entropius (188861)

      It can be guaranteed that Shelby's not doing anything for honest "this-is-what-I-really-think-is-best" reasons. There may be arguments for and against Constellation, but Shelby did that just because the work was being done in his district.

      That guy's a crook.

  • Some thoughts after watching the press conference [youtube.com] which announced the winners and reading up about the companies:

    Sierra Nevada ($20 million): Their in-progress Dream Chaser reusable lifting-body spacecraft is really interesting, derived from NASA's HL-20 personnel launch system [wikipedia.org] tested in the early 90s. It's a pretty well-understood design, with nice features like reusability, being able to land, low operations costs, and the capability to launch on a medium-lift rocket.

    Boeing ($18 million): For developing a

    • by physburn (1095481)
      Thanks for the details. None of these contracts is the sort of big money needed for viable space development, but at least they'll keep the industry chugging along development plans. It would be cool to have a Dream Chaser space plane as a shuttle successors. And the Bigelow funding may keep the space tourism dream alive too. Of all the contracts I'll bet the only one that completed on time, and gets into space, is the life support system.

      ---

      Space Colonization [feeddistiller.com] Feed @ Feed Distiller [feeddistiller.com]

  • What's this 'competition' you speak of?
  • For cryin out loud, how did they not get in the game? They seems to be in every other corner of the government market! Don't take this as a whine as to why NG isn't in the game, I for one am glad that they aren't. I would much rather see more smaller companies in there working for "the greater good" as it were, than the big boys. But, the big boys have some good technology that they bring to the table, but they also bring a hefty price tag and probably some nasty rules too.

  • When the US government becomes reliant on these (or other) companies for access to space will they become "to big to fail"? If they go broke can I expect another bailout?

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