Some notes on commercial ISS transport

At Wednesday’s meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Brant Sponberg of NASA talked about some of the agency’s commercialization efforts, including various Centennial Challenges prize programs. He also offered some details about NASA’s upcoming procurement of commercial ISS transport services, which may be of interest to readers given the rhetoric about the role of commercialization in the Vision for Space Exploration:

  • The procurement will cover a wide range of options for ISS transport: cargo (pressurized and unpressurized) to the station, cargo return to the Earth, and crew transport to and from the station.
  • A draft procurement will be issued by around Thanksgiving (it will be preceded later this week by a procurement synopsis; Sponberg said that synopsis was sitting on his desk as he spoke). The final RFP will be out by the end of the year. However, it will be around May before NASA awards any contracts (I could have sworn I heard someone in the audience groan when Sponberg said that.)
  • Someone asked what sort of regulations regarding “human-rating” of a crew transport vehicle would apply here. Sponberg said that, during the development phase, NASA would be open to using the FAA’s own regulations for the vehicle, since it would only be carrying one or more commercial pilots. However, once NASA starts to procure actual crew transport services, with the vehicle carrying NASA astronauts, NASA would “absolutely” require the vehicle to meet its human-rating requirements.

Update 10/27 12:30 pm: A few addenda to my previous comments, now that I have my notes from the meeting:

  • If and when NASA does get to the point where they procure commercial ISS transport services, those contracts will be done under a firm fixed price, not cost-plus, basis, with fixed milestones and a payment schedule tied to those milestones. Sponberg added that companies “should be willing to take a little bit of the risk.”
  • Insurance and indemnification of commercial ISS transport launches are apparently thorny issues that are still under discussion within NASA.
  • NASA is still studying the possibility of a manned orbital spaceflight prize, analogous to the suborbital Ansari X Prize. Bigelow Aerospace already has something similar with the America’s Space Prize, but Sponberg said that it remains to be seen what relationship, if any, there will be between NASA and the Bigelow prize. (Recall that last fall there were reports that NASA would fund half of the $50-million prize, but those negotiations apparently fell through, and Bigelow is now fully funding the prize itself.)

8 comments to Some notes on commercial ISS transport

  • David Davenport

    However, once NASA starts to procure actual crew transport services, with the vehicle carrying NASA astronauts, NASA would “absolutely” require the vehicle to meet its human-rating requirements. …

    In other words, fugedaboudit.

    Rand Simberg likes to remind people that the Shuttle is not actually “man-rated.”

  • David Davenport

    However, I don’t suppose NASA could easily stop a spacecraft flying some other country’s flag from docking at the ISS, or prevent a pilot with whatever FAA ticket will be required from flying non-NASA passengers to the space station. I suppose NASA might have enough influence to prevent the FAA from allowing this.

    Either way, it’s b*llsh*t — more sh*t heaped on and sticking to NASA’s formerly shiny reputation.

    It’s almost enough to make a patriotic American hope that the Russians get their Kliper spacecraft flying before the Steroid Capsule (TM) gets hatched.

  • J Patton

    I’ve been working Human Rating requirements for a couple of years. 8705.2A is a GREAT Human Rating requirements document. It’s unfortunate that NASA isn’t willing to use them. “Human Rating” is simply magic NASA pixie dust. Only THEY know what it means, and only THEY can say if a system is “Human Rated.” For example, requirement 3.1 “Two-Failure Tolerance” says “Space systems shall be designed so that no two failures result in crew or passenger fatality or permanent disability.” So it’s obvious that the current ATK Crew Launch Vehicle cannot meet this basic requirement. Hence, the new CLV is not “Human-Rated.” NASA has no qualms about Tailoring this requirement from Day 1. They seem to be willing to Tailor THEIR requirements to get what THEY want, but any other solution that actually MEETS their requirements (eg. a system that provides engine-out for all flight phases) is deemed to be non-compliant, as the other system designers obviously don’t understand the NASA Human Rating requirements.

  • “Human rating” is clearly just a game that NASA plays to keep others out, since however they choose to arbitrarily define it, they always waive it for themselves.

  • Chris Mann

    Even if you manage to trump NASA in the “human rating” game, they’ll likely never clear you for ISS prox ops.

  • J Patton

    Why would ANYONE invest commercial $$s to design a system to FAA requirements, only to be told by NASA that those requirements aren’t good enough?

  • Chris,
    Hence the reason folks should prepare to work closely with the guys from CSI ( While NASA may play funny business with what “man rated” means, offering contracts for delivery of cargo/people to station in a way that no one can actually meet is a little to transparent even for NASA at its worst. I’d suggest we all wait a bit for useful details before we start ripping poor Brant to shreds in public.

  • Mike Puckett

    Someone needs to call Senator Brownbeck’s office and make him aware of the ‘man rating’ shenenagians game being played with ISS crew/cargo.