WASHINGTON — Having declared its $850 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) experiment a success, NASA is now considering how the same mold-breaking procurement approach might be used for other programs. 

“COTS is not for everything,” Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, said at NASA headquarters here Nov. 13 during a press conference marking the official end of the program. “This was taking technology that was known [and] repackaging it in a more cost-effective and innovative way. It needs multiple companies to have a good, healthy competition. It needs good, strong financing, because NASA did not pay the full cost.”

Through COTS, a seven-year development program that began while President George W. Bush was still in office, NASA helped fund development of new rockets and spacecraft built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. Those companies, using Commercial Resupply Services contracts awarded two years into the COTS program, are now sending cargo to the international space station and — in SpaceX’s case — bringing it back to Earth.

Both companies retained the rights to the hardware they developed under COTS and are free to market it to customers outside of NASA. SpaceX, with its bulging backlog of commercial satellite launches, already has. 

For COTS, in a departure from the government-led acquisition approach used for most of its hardware development programs, NASA established mission guidelines but left it to industry to decide how — and with what hardware — the mission would be carried out. The agency then invited companies to compete for funded Space Act Agreements, alternative procurement vehicles that leave awardees, not NASA, free to run the design and development process.

COTS alone did not finance the construction of Orbital and SpaceX’s rockets and spacecraft. In late 2008, NASA awarded the companies lucrative Commercial Resupply Services contracts — traditional government contracts that reasserted NASA’s ability to dictate requirements for the missions it was buying. Orbital got an eight-flight, $1.9 billion contract. SpaceX got a 12-flight deal worth $1.6 billion. Both contracts run through 2016. 

Both companies received a significant chunk of their fees for the delivery missions in advance, which was used for development and testing on the ground. SpaceX has so far flown two of its 12 missions. Orbital is set to launch its first, which follows September’s successful demonstration run to the station, no earlier than Dec. 17. 

Meanwhile, Lindenmoyer said NASA has already asked for ideas about how to exploit the COTS model for other programs.

In responses to an agency request for information issued in July, industry sent NASA ideas for “systems to go back and explore the Moon, communications systems, propellant systems [and] launch systems,” Lindenmoyer said.

Frank Culbertson, a former astronaut who is now executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced programs group, had his own ideas about where NASA’s COTS partners, or companies like them, might fit into future missions. He singled out the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which NASA would nudge a captured asteroid into lunar orbit for astronauts to visit early next decade, as one of these.

“They’re going to need cargo, they’re going to need modules, they’re going to need support for companies like ours … to complete those missions in a cost-effective way,” Culbertson said.

Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, also wants to see the COTS approach carried forward.

“It’s probably not the right model for every program, but certainly I think we should think very hard about following this model for additional developments,” Shotwell said. 

In a Nov. 12 press conference, NASA’s top human spaceflight official, William Gerstenmaier, also reinforced the idea that NASA will be looking for off-the-shelf space hardware to use in future missions to deep space, including eventual crewed missions to Mars.

“When you start looking at a human-class Mars mission, I don’t think there’s any country alone that could really support that,” Gerstenmaier said. “That’s going to have to be some kind of international activity, and I would also suggest the commercial sector needs to be involved in that as well.”

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...