As the last Shuttle astronauts return to Earth, NASA is starting to put in place its plans for commercially-operated replacements. It's signed a deal with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to evaluate its Atlas 5 rocket for use in human missions.
NASA already uses the vehicle for unmanned missions.
"I am truly excited about the addition of ULA to NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program team," says NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
"Having ULA on board may speed the development of a commercial crew transportation system for the International Space Station, allowing NASA to concentrate its resources on exploring beyond low-Earth orbit."
ULA will continue to build on the Atlas V CTS concept, and will carry out a series of risk assessments and hazard analyses.
NASA will share its human spaceflight experience with ULA to improve the vehicle's crew transportation capabilities, and will draft human certification requirements. ULA, for its part, will give feedback on the technical feasibility and cost effectiveness of NASA's proposed certification approach.
The evaluation should be pretty much finished by the end of this year.
"This unfunded SAA will look at the Atlas V to understand its design risks, its capabilities, how it can be used within the context of flying our NASA crew and maturing ULA's designs for the Emergency Detection System and launch vehicle processing and launch architectures under a crewed configuration," says Ed Mango, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager.
The most significant element in the safety evaluation is the Emergency Detection System (EDS), which will monitor critical launch vehicle and spacecraft systems, and which will issue status, warning and abort commands to crew during their mission to low Earth orbit.
Last year, NASA awarded $6.7 million to ULA to accompany its own $1.3 million investment to develop an EDS prototype test bed.