Wednesday, December 07, 2011

SpaceX Sees Opportunity To Grab Space Taxi Contract

Officials at Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) see the massive budget reductions in NASA’s commercial crew program as an opportunity to clinch the competition to develop a commercial space taxi. NASA had requested a commercial crew budget of $850 million for the fiscal year which began on Oct.1, but received only $406 million instead.

This raises the possibility that either the number of companies being funded in the commercial crew development program would be trimmed, or that competing companies would be unable to meet their intended development schedules given the reduced funding.

In order to benefit from the funding shortfall, SpaceX would need to conduct a successful trial flight with berthing at the international space station during their next text flight of the Falcon 9 – Dragon X spacecraft, presently slated for an early 2012 launch.

NASA had hoped to use their original commercial crew budget of $850 to continue development work on two or more space taxi designs, in hopes of breaking Russia's post-shuttle monopoly on station crew transportation before the end of 2016. According to SpaceNews.com, the reduced funding might result in several of the competing companies being cut. NASA had been funding development work at SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told Space News he thinks the reduced funding may give his company an edge over aerospace giant Boeing:

“I always expected that for the next phase, NASA would down-select from four [companies] to two and that the two would probably be Boeing and SpaceX. Given the lower funding for commercial crew, I’m not sure if NASA still intends to down-select to two or not. If they down-select to one, I think we’ve got a better than even chance of beating Boeing because of the maturity of our spacecraft,” Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive and chief technical officer, said in an interview with Space News.

“We will have flown to the space station probably twice by the time the commercial crew decision is awarded, and the design of our spacecraft is very similar between cargo and crew, so I think from a risk standpoint, SpaceX is the lowest risk and will be the most proven path to success for commercial crew,” Musk said.

Before selection is made, SpaceX, which debuted its Dragon cargo capsule during a test flight last December, plans to fly a demonstration mission to the station. It also may have flown the first of 12 supply runs already purchased by NASA under a related program. “From a SpaceX standpoint, we’re ready to go in December, but we have to coordinate that with NASA and any other missions that are going to the space station. What I’ve heard through the grapevine is that NASA is maybe aiming for a February launch,” Musk said. “We’re not going to launch until we’re ready and until NASA thinks we’re ready.”

SpaceX currently employs about 1,600 people, including about 70 in Florida. The company is looking for a second launch pad at either Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or one of the space shuttle launch pads at Kennedy, and expects its Florida payroll to include about 1,000 people within four to five years, depending on NASA and other awards. “I’m highly confident that the commercial space industry will employ more than the government space industry ever did,” Musk said.

The company is awaiting NASA technical reviews for its second demonstration flight.


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