NASA preps next phase of commercial crew program

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —

NASA is preparing to launch the next phase of its commercial crew program, which means opening up the race to return to U.S.-manned spaceflight.

A dozen aerospace companies met with NASA Thursday to find out how they might become commercial space contenders and officials told the group it's looking for proposals.

"For our purposes, if they get through the certification, there will be a minimum of two missions to the International Space Station with our NASA personnel," said NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development Director Phil McAlister.

With a goal of a return to operational flights by 2017, NASA would like to award a contract or contracts by next summer.

There are some leading contenders: The Boeing company, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Space X are all developing commercial spacecraft.

NASA has already invested more than $1 billion in its commercial crew program and its current partners.

"They have matured their designs and development well," said McAlister. "We've been partnering with all three of those companies for several years, but this is an open competition and it allows anyone to come in, even if they have not been partnering with NASA previously."

There's no dollar value attached to any potential contract. NASA is allowing competitors to say what they think it's going to take for them to get through the government portion of their contract and it will involve some cost-sharing.

But NASA, which is currently dependent on Russia to transport U.S. astronauts to the I.S.S., plans to request proposals in the fall.

"The mission of the program is safe, reliable, cost-effective. In that order," said NASA commercial crew program manager Ed Mango.

NASA said it would like to see more than one company all the way through certification to increase competition.