jueves, 3 de febrero de 2011

Businesses Take Flight, With Help From NASA


BOULDER, Colo. — Sitting in a testing facility at the University of Colorado, the inner shell of the Dream Chaser space plane looks like the fuselage of an old DC-3.  The test structure has been pushed and pulled to see how it holds up to the stresses and strains of spaceflight. With an additional infusion of money from NASA, the company that makes the Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, hopes to complete the rest of the structure and eventually take astronauts to orbit.

“Our view is if we could stop buying from the Russians, if we could make life cheaper for NASA, and if we could build a few vehicles that do other things in low-Earth orbit that are valuable, isn’t that, at the end of the day, a good thing?” said Mark N. Sirangelo, the company’s chairman.

The Dream Chaser is one of several new spacecraft that companies are hoping to launch into space with help from the government. Last year, the Obama administration pushed through an ambitious transformation for NASA: canceling the Ares I rocket, which was to be the successor to the current generation of space shuttles, and turning to the commercial sector for astronaut transportation.

So far, most of the attention in this new commercial space race has focused on Boeing, which has five decades of experience building spacecraft, and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX, for short — a brash upstart that gained credibility last year with two launchings of its Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal and chief executive of Tesla Motors, already has a NASA contract for delivering cargo to the space station, and says that it can easily add up to seven seats to its Dragon cargo capsule to make it suitable for passengers. Boeing is also designing a capsule, capable of carrying seven passengers, under the corporate-sounding designation of CST-100.

But Boeing and SpaceX are not the only competitors seeking to provide space taxi services, a program that NASA calls commercial crew. Last year, in the first-round financing provided for preliminary development, Sierra Nevada Space Systems won the largest award: $20 million out of a total of $50 million.

In December, another space company, Orbital Sciences Corporation, announced it had submitted a similar bid for a space plane it wants financed during the second round. NASA is to announce the winners by the end of March, and they will divide $200 million.

About half of NASA’s $19 billion budget goes toward human spaceflight — the space shuttles, the International Space Station — and $200 million this year is just a small slice.

“If this is indeed the path to do this work, it’s probably not what they should be putting into it,” said Mr. Sirangelo, who is also chairman emeritus of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group. “But on the other hand, it’s a lot more than we had before. And it’s an acknowledgment there’s momentum in the industry and what we’re trying to accomplish. So that’s good.”

After the second round, NASA would like narrow its choices down to two, maybe three, systems to finance.

“We think this is in effect a one-year race to see who gets the furthest,” Mr. Sirangelo said, “and at the end of that, presumably the next two years of the authorization bill gets funded, and then you compete for that pot of money.” The blueprint for NASA, passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Obama, calls for spending on commercial crew to rise to $500 million each year in 2012 and 2013. Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who was one of the primary architects of the blueprint, as the authorization act was called, has said the intent was to provide $6 billion over six years.

But what Congress puts into the budget could be far less.

“They’re not getting $6 billion over six years for commercial crew,” said a Senate aide who was not authorized to speak for attribution. “That’s never going to happen.”

The aide estimated commercial crew might receive half that much. In addition, Congress has not passed the final 2011 budget, and Mr. Obama wants to freeze spending at many federal agencies. Whether the freeze includes NASA will not be known until the president’s 2012 budget request is released in two weeks.

While Sierra Nevada has the lowest profile of the companies seeking commercial crew business, it is not new. The parent company, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, is a privately held defense electronics firm founded in 1963, and a few years ago, it bought several space companies and rolled them into the space systems subsidiary.