Editorial | A Space Policy Success Story

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The launch Dec. 3 of the SES-8 telecommunications satellite atop a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket put an exclamation point on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which had already succeeded in its original goal of spurring development of commercial logistics services to the international space station.

Technically, COTS concluded several weeks earlier with the successful delivery of supplies to the space station by Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus capsule, which was launched by that company’s new Antares rocket. The SES-8 launch, as Falcon 9’s first purely commercial mission, extended the benefit of COTS beyond the space station, and in doing so solidified its legacy as an unqualified success story in U.S. civil space policy. 

In that regard, COTS stands out in stark contrast to the nation’s continued lack of a cohesive long-term human spaceflight strategy.

COTS was hatched by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush to leverage the private sector’s willingness to invest in new rockets and capsules to reduce U.S. dependence on Russia for space station resupply services following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle. It was one of the few elements of Mr. Bush’s space policy that was fully embraced by his successor, President Barack Obama, who took it a big step further by adopting a similar approach to restoring U.S. astronaut crew launching capabilities.

For a taxpayer investment of $850 million, NASA now has two operational space station cargo delivery systems. SpaceX successfully completed its COTS flight demonstration program in 2012 and has since carried out two of a planned 12 flights to station under the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA; Orbital is scheduled to conduct its first post-COTS resupply mission in December.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding questions surrounding the long-term availability of Antares, the U.S. government has at its disposal two new and potentially lower-cost launch vehicles that probably wouldn’t have been developed without COTS. For its part, SpaceX is competing for a contract to launch astronauts to station aboard Falcon 9 and also is angling for a piece of the national security launch business currently monopolized by United Launch Alliance.

COTS is not without its critics, who point out that the program took longer and cost more than expected to get the desired results. But traditionally managed government space programs of this scale rarely come in on time and budget, and fewer still offer such direct ancillary benefits both for the government and commercial sector. SpaceX has amassed an impressive backlog of commercial missions while offering a dual-launch option for a new class of lightweight electric-propulsion satellites that could change the economics of the satellite telecommunications industry.

The success of COTS has encouraged NASA to explore whether a similar government-industry co-financing model can be successfully applied to other civil space endeavors. The agency issued a solicitation in June and is reviewing industry ideas in areas that range from lunar exploration to communications, although it remains to be seen what agency activities and missions might lend themselves to a COTS-like approach. 

The Commercial Resupply Services program is still in a relatively early phase, and there are bound to be some hiccups as SpaceX and Orbital execute on their contracts. But having successfully completed their COTS flight demonstrations, the companies are already well on their way to securing the program’s legacy as a winner for both government and industry.