Alternative NASA Exploration Crew Vehicles

Eric Berger—who has some very interesting sources—for Ars Technica:

Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid-2020s.

This is going to be an extremely interesting transition period. More of a “Let’s modernize this roadmap,” instead of a “Tear it all up!”

Unlike a more formal “Request for Proposals,” the RFI was written in a deliberately vague way, sources told Ars, in order to generate a wide variety of responses from industry. The most simple interpretation is that the RFI represents something of a “stalking horse” to drive down Lockheed’s bid to build subsequent Orions during the operational phase of the spacecraft, when NASA begins to fly crews into deep space, likely to a deep-space habitat. As part of this, the RFI anticipates moving from the existing cost-plus model to a fixed-price contract.

Ars understands that there are also discussions in Gerstenmaier’s office about issuing a similar RFI for the Space Launch System rocket, which has Boeing as its primary contractor. This would not be too great of a surprise, because at least two companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are privately developing heavy-lift alternatives that theoretically could offer significant savings to the large government rocket.

The deep space habitat initiative is the leading example of the exploration program moving towards an ISS-like model: key commercial partners on fixed-price contracts who design, build and own their work, then supply it to NASA.

That’s very encouraging, and certainly makes the landscape look a lot less like an SLS vs. ITS death match. This would open the door to a future where ITS (and/or New Glenn/Armstrong) could play a huge role in NASA’s exploration program, without it having to kill off SLS/Orion on its own. This is really encouraging.