Is This NASA Document Saving or Killing Manned Private Spaceflight?

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft.

By Joe Pappalardo

NASA, which wants to send its astronauts aboard privately built spacecraft, recently released the first draft of a document detailing how it would ensure those ships are safe. The contract is a tome of legalese, but buried inside the hundreds of pages are provisions that have some private space companies worried that NASA’s oversight could slow them down.

For the past few years, NASA has been funding private space companies in the hope that they can build spacecraft that will carry astronauts to orbit. This is a historic change: Until now, every NASA craft has been designed and wholly owned by the agency. Now, industry would build and operate rockets and spacecraft, and it would do it more quickly, cheaply, and flexibly than the government could, opening a new era of spaceflight.

But not so fast.

This month, NASA released the first draft of the document that describes how it plans to ensure the privately built spacecraft they will use will be safe. The document will define America’s future in space, because it sets the rules private companies will have to follow, though few seem to have read it. But we read through the dense language of the contract, called the Commercial Crew Integrated Design Contract (CCIDC), and found that it sets terms that keep NASA very much in control of the design and timeline of the next astronaut-carrying spacecraft and launch vehicles.

Space companies are quietly pushing back against parts of the contract. Officials complain that the terms leave open questions over who has final say over the engineering. There are new government review boards that can reject hardware designs. Some insiders complain that this intensive NASA control is tantamount to the FAA certifying the design of airplanes, not just certifying their airworthiness. And the contract stipulates that companies would have to make room for NASA employees in their own offices, who would keep tabs on the companies’ projects.

“The devil’s in the details of what level NASA wants control,” says one Boeing official.

Yet, the contract proposed by NASA is a new approach for the agency, and it does streamline paperwork requirements and ensure that private companies can keep their intellectual property. So for NASA, the CCIDC is cutting edge and innovative. “We are enabling and allowing for contractor-owned and operated systems. That’s a big difference,” says Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight. “We want these systems to be available to all range of public and private users. So we’re really hoping that this will spur the development of a new industry for the United States.” (For a detailed explanation of NASA’s contract, and their approach to private space, read our full exclusive Q&A with McAlister.)

Credit: Popular Science

Read more: Is This NASA Document Saving or Killing Manned Private Spaceflight? – Popular Mechanics


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