COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. companies vying for NASA contracts to deliver cargo to the international space station are irked that the U.S. space agency has given about half of the near-term market to Russia.
NASA announced April 9 that it had concluded a deal with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos, to continue providing space station crew and cargo transportation services through 2011 under a $719 million contract modification.
For fear of jeopardizing their chances of winning NASA contracts, officials with U.S. firms interested in the space station resupply market would not complain about the deal on the record. Offered anonymity, however, these officials questioned NASA’s need to lock in a deal now that runs through 2011 and expressed concern that by doing so the agency makes it difficult for them to raise the money needed to develop their own cargo craft.
“Why can’t [NASA] wait a year?” one U.S. executive said about the timing of the deal. “The Russians are putting the screws to them.”
Roskosmos spokesman Igor Panarin told Space News April 13 that the agency welcomed the contract.
“Such large-scale multiyear projects are beneficial,” Panarin said. “The agreement will provide additional financing of our rocket and space industry and would, therefore, stimulate development of the industry.”
The contract calls for Roskosmos to deliver 15 crew members to the space station, six each in 2009 and 2010, and three in 2011, aboard Soyuz vehicles. During the same period, Roskosmos will deliver and remove 5.6 metric tons of space station cargo with the aid of Progress supply ships, NASA said.
In announcing the deal, NASA said it still plans to rely on its Commercial Or bital Transportation Services (COTS) program to provide space station logistics starting in 2010. Under that program, NASA is providing a combined $500 million to help two companies — Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler and El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies () — demonstrate COTS-type capabilities.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, told a Senate panel in late March that Russian vehicles are being counted on for about half of the cargo tonnage that will need to be shipped to the space station in 2010. He said the remainder is open to the COTS contractors.
But Europe and Japan also are developing space station cargo vehicles, a point not lost on U.S. companies trying to close business cases around what they described as an eroding resupply market. Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle is slated to make its debut this fall followed by Japan’s H-2A Transfer Vehicle in summer 2009.
In recent weeks, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has sought to reassure COTS contenders that there is plenty of market opportunity left for them to address. He repeated that message April 12 during a media roundtable here at the 23rd National Space Symposium.
“Our studies have shown we can use everything we can get from Progress and Soyuz plus everything commercial companies are offering to provide for the space station and not be oversubscribed,” Griffin said. “So any concern about standing down Progress or Soyuz if U.S. commercial companies come along, which we hope that they do, that’s not my first concern.”
Griffin said NASA plans to conduct an open competition in 2009 for space station resupply contracts. Some U.S. industry officials said they would like to see NASA move up the competition to 2008 or even this year.
“We’re going to do that competition in ’09 which is at most two years from now and maybe less since we are well into ’07,” Griffin said. “I don’t think we can be ready to do it much sooner.”
Griffin also said industry almost certainly will be eligible to bid on the resupply contracts before it has demonstrated the necessary capability.
“I doubt that I would impose such a requirement,” he said. “It would go in the direction of excluding too many people. It’s possible to conduct a competition and select winners before the ability to provide the service has been demonstrated. The government does it all the time.”
COTS contractors Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX do not expect to conduct their first flights to the space station before 2009. Of the half-dozen or so other companies eyeing the COTS market, none are known to have robust development efforts under way. Some, however, would make use of existing rockets and other hardware. For example,of Denver has looked at using its Atlas 5 or 4 rockets in combination with the European and Japanese transfer vehicles.
While none of the COTS hopefuls have a service ready for NASA, they say 2010 is certainly achievable provided NASA provides enough of a market . Noting that Griffin has pledged to defer the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle if the U.S. commercial sector proves capable of transporting astronauts to the space station , one industry official expressed concern that NASA would have no such flexibility in the wake of the deal with Roskosmos .
“My hope is they are not locked into take-or-pay contracts that would prevent them from utilizing COTS suppliers when they come on line,” the official said.
Griffin declined to say whether the Russian deal includes an escape provision covering 2010 and 2011, a period when U.S. firms conceivably could field a domestic logistics alternative.
“I’m not going to go into the details of the contractual deal here. I would expect that everything we’ve said we will buy from Russia we will buy. Whether the contract specifically requires such things or prevents such changes, I’m not going to go into.”
The expectation in Russia is that NASA will use all the services it has ordered.
“We have signed the agreement and we hope it will be honored,” Panarin said. “Also, this agreement was being prepared for some time, during which Americans had an opportunity to think it over, including all aspects and possible developments. Americans are good at calculating and the fact that they have signed speaks for itself.”
An official at the Russian company that builds Progress and Soyuz vehicles, Korolev-based RSC Energia, said they are taking longer to build now than when the hardware was needed to support both the Russian Mir space station and the international space station. What used to be accomplished in two years or so now takes a little over three years, the Energia official said.
“The demand dwindled after Mir so we downsized our production capacities. Also, the quality of some of the items provided by our subcontractors decreased while other subcontractors ceased to operate altogether,” the official said. “The production cycle remains the same, but the time has grown longer.”
NASA’s contract with Roskosmos also calls for Roskosmos to make 1.4 metric tons of capacity available on the Russian Docking Cargo Module for NASA hardware. That module is slated to launch in 2010, NASA said.
In addition, the deal includes a flight opportunity for one crew member to the space station that NASA is obliged to provide under its agreement with the space station international partners. That flight, scheduled for 2009, will enable an astronaut from one of the partner nations to spend six months at the space station, NASA said.
Simon Saradzhyan contributed to this story from Moscow.