Cape Canaveral, FL (Florida Today) -- SpaceX headquarters was abuzz on a recent morning as NASA representatives and the company's independent safety advisers met in California to review its progress designing a Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts.
"As you can imagine, all the SpaceX folks here are waiting anxiously for some announcement to see what's going on," said former astronaut Leroy Chiao, who was there visiting as a member of the safety advisory panel.
That highly anticipated NASA announcement -- expected any day -- will reveal who has won a high-stakes competition to fly astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017, ending America's reliance on Russia to ferry crews to and from the outpost.
The decision will have an immediate impact on the Space Coast, home to NASA's Commercial Crew Program headquarters and the place from which all three known contenders – The Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX – will launch their missions, potentially bringing hundreds of new jobs.
Longer-term, the one or more winning companies will try to grow a market for flights of non-NASA astronauts to low Earth orbit. They will pioneer a commercial role in human spaceflight that was considered a radical change when a White House panel endorsed it in 2009 and the Obama administration proposed it in 2010.
"It represents a new way of doing business," said Wayne Hale, a former NASA shuttle program manager. "The principles are to maintain safety and reliability that we're all familiar with in this risky enterprise, but also to do it at a much reduced cost."
NASA projects spending $3.4 billion over the next five years to develop and fly the new commercial crew systems — slightly more than the agency will spend this year alone on the development of an exploration rocket and spacecraft, or than it spent on the shuttle's last full year of operations in 2010.
That follows $1.5 billion spent since 2010 — not including the companies' undisclosed investments — primarily on SpaceX's Dragon capsule, Boeing's CST-100 capsule and Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, and related systems for launching them on SpaceX's Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.
How much money Congress will actually provide, starting next year, remains uncertain. So NASA's first major decision is how many vehicles to continue funding.
Most experts expect two winners. NASA has consistently said competition is key to producing the safest, most affordable systems, and it doesn't want to rely on a single provider in case that company runs into problems.
"The program has been, in my mind, unfortunately starved for resources in its early years," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University. "But it seems like Congress has finally woken up to the reality that this can't be done on the cheap, and that NASA needs the money that's been requested to move forward."
The result could be two roughly equal contracts, or one big winner and a smaller runner up. Or another combination involving one or several companies with funded and unfunded agreements.
Boeing and SpaceX appear on first blush to be the favorites, having been awarded twice as much money as Sierra Nevada in the competition's previous round in 2012.
A handful of experts claiming no inside knowledge about the decision and no preferred outcome, speculated to FLORIDA TODAY that SpaceX would be hard to beat, and that Sierra Nevada may be an underdog but shouldn't be counted out.
Each company must first prove it can meet NASA's voluminous safety requirements. Then, significantly, cost counts for about half of NASA's evaluation of the proposals.
Here are some of each company's strengths and weaknesses:
Boeing: An aerospace powerhouse that has participated in human spaceflight since its origins, Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration has received the most development money so far and may represent the safest pick politically.
"Everybody knows the name Boeing," said Chiao. "They're a big aerospace company, they know how to build spacecraft."
Key to Boeing's pitch is its promise to assemble the CST-100 capsule in renovated former shuttle facilities at Kennedy Space Center and to base up to 550 employees here, probably adding the most local jobs.
The CST-100 is based on heritage systems that stress proven technology over innovation, but it has never flown in space. It would fly atop an Atlas V rocket, which has launched nearly 50 times.
Many presume Boeing has submitted the most expensive bid, and the company has said continuing a commercial crew program without a NASA contract is doubtful. Employees have been notified to expect layoffs if Boeing loses.
NASA may weigh whether a legacy company is the best pick to spur an era of lower-cost human access to space, a mission embodied more by Boeing's smaller and younger "new space" competitors. If Boeing doesn't advance in commercial crew, it will remain a primary contractor involved in space station operations and development of NASA's new exploration rocket.
"There is a large contingent of folks in the space policy arena that feel that a new space company should lead the way," said Hale. "It's not entirely clear to me where all the political pieces are going to fall."
SpaceX: Its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule already deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and the Falcon 9, now with 11 successful launches, is the most affordable rocket available.
SpaceX would launch crews from KSC's historic pad 39A, which it leased from NASA earlier this year, while the other two spacecraft would launch from the Atlas V pad next door at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Astronaut launches from its former Apollo and shuttle pad would give KSC a boost.
SpaceX is pushing technological envelopes with efforts to develop reusable rockets and a Dragon that can land on land with helicopter-like precision — potentially game-changing innovations that might not work. The company might find performing under a traditional NASA contract more difficult than the more flexible Space Act Agreements the program has utilized to date.
Founder and CEO Elon Musk is revered in business and technology circles, but his brash approach has rankled some in the aerospace establishment and Congress.
"I don't think SpaceX can be turned down, unless they find just a real major technical issue," said Handberg. "SpaceX is so publicly and politically potent right now."
But he noted that SpaceX likely would add the fewest local jobs, since its manufacturing and development work is done elsewhere.
Started with a vision of colonizing Mars, SpaceX has said losing out on a NASA contract would slow but not stop the company's plans to fly people.
Sierra Nevada: The Dream Chaser offers the field's only alternative to an Apollo-like capsule, a winged vehicle that looks and works more like a shuttle, and thus appeals to many at NASA.
The lifting body design, evolved from one NASA started years ago, provides some advantages over capsules, like lower G-forces during reentry and flexibility to land on runways across the country.
"For the low Earth orbit job . . . wings are perfect," said John Curry, Dream Chaser co-program manager, during a recent presentation to the Canaveral chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. "Capsules are not the way to do it, in my opinion."
The Dream Chaser also would lift off on an Atlas V. Sierra Nevada has already booked a November 2016 launch for an uncrewed orbital test flight.
The company's Colorado-based Space Systems division has built rocket engines, spacecraft components and satellites, but never an orbital spacecraft like Boeing and SpaceX have. It promises a significant Florida presence to process and refurbish Dream Chasers, including plans to share the KSC facility where Lockheed Martin is assembling NASA's Orion exploration capsule.
Sierra Nevada has inked multiple partnerships with international space agencies, signaling its desire to broaden Dream Chaser customers beyond NASA and possibly to secure a future even without a NASA contract.
Boeing and Sierra Nevada share a disadvantage that seemingly helps SpaceX: their Atlas V rocket depends on a Russian main engine at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are deteriorating.
A Russian official's threat to stop providing the RD-180 engine for military launches seems less of a concern now, but SpaceX offers an option free of that uncertainty.
Whatever the competition's outcome, Chiao, who served on the Augustine Committee that in 2009 endorsed commercial crew flights as a viable option, said the program is a bright spot for NASA.
"I'm glad to see that this Commercial Crew Program is moving ahead and has been making some great strides," he said.
The upcoming decision is a big one for NASA and for many individuals like Curry, who left NASA for a riskier opportunity to help lead a Dream Chaser team that he said could "do something spectacular."
He awaits the news confident Sierra Nevada has submitted a compelling spacecraft design and spent its money wisely.
"The design of the vehicle is the best possible design that we can bring forward, and from that, I have peace," he said. "I'll let the chips fall as they may."