In 2020, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems will be joined in cargo resupply by Sierra Nevada Corporation and its Dream Chaser “lifting-body” spacecraft. Dream Chaser differs in configuration from the capsule-style spacecraft NASA’s other partners have designed, capable of landing on a runway on its return from low-Earth orbit.
The momentum of the commercial cargo program spilled over into NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), said Lueders. Lueders had previously worked on the cargo program and took lessons learned with her to CCP.
“We learned things from cargo that we said, ‘For crew, this will have to be different.’”
Launching a program to help develop unmanned commercial spacecraft into vehicles capable of delivering living, breathing people to the ISS, rather than cargo, presents a different challenge, Lueders stressed.
NASA specifies that commercial crew delivery spacecraft and the launch vehicles they will use must satisfy its human-rating standards. The standards require higher levels of redundancy and fault tolerance than those that apply to commercial cargo spacecraft and launch vehicles.
“With crew transportation, it has to be safe, reliable, and the risk level and risk tolerance go down. It was really important for us to start laying the foundation of how do we look at current gaps in industry that we need to beef up and invest in over the next few years.”
NASA began that process in 2010 with the first phase of Commercial Crew Development. Once more, the agency took a big step back from its traditional role with clear, concise requirements for crew resupply vehicles.
“We told them we need a spacecraft that can safely fly four people to the space station and back,” Lueders said. “It has to be reliable and we want it to be cost-effective.”
Another key difference between commercial cargo and commercial crew missions is the need for certification. NASA specifies that commercial crew delivery spacecraft and the launch vehicles they will use must satisfy its human-rating standards. The standards require higher levels of redundancy and fault tolerance than those that apply to commercial cargo spacecraft and launch vehicles.
Because NASA has been the only American organization to fly people into space as yet, it is the only entity that employs such standards.
“One of our goals is to help industry develop their human-rating standard,” Lueders said. “Right now we’re the only people that certify human-rated rockets. But that could change in the future.”
NASA has been working with a range of organizations on packaging its standards and the knowledge that underpins them in a format that could be adopted by the commercial spaceflight industry. Lueders calls it another form of tech transfer taken from NASA’s “book of hard knocks.”