Washington — NASA has agreed to monitor the progress of two private spaceflight companies developing competing vehicles designed to carry cargo and astronauts to the international space station (ISS).
The U.S. space agency signed separate non-reimbursable Space Act agreements with Chicago-based PlanetSpace Inc. and Reston, Virginia-based Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space) pledging to provide the two firms with requirements and specifications for crew and cargo flights to the space station.
Unlike the awards NASA made to Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler and El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies () in August 2006 under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) demonstration program, the Space Act Agreements announced Feb. 1 include no financial support. However, the space agency did agree to monitor via quarterly meetings the progress that both firms make developing their systems.
“It allows us to go ahead and meet specific milestones and goals to reach our orbital capabilities,” said PlanetSpace Chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria, a medical doctor and telecom entrepreneur whose previous space ventures include MirCorp, an Amsterdam-based firm that sought to privatize the Russian space station. Kathuria also ran for the U.S Senate in 2004 and in 2006 made an unsuccessful bid to become Illinois’ lieutenant governor.
PlanetSpace’s planned orbital spacecraft, the Silver Dart, is derived from the U.S. Air Force’s Flight Dynamics Laboratory-7 (FDL-7) experimental aircraft. It is designed to launch atop a NOVA booster based on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. Their vehicle could be fitted with docking hardware, cargo modules or crew compartments based on their flight plan, PlanetSpace officials said. The first demonstration launch is targeted for December 2009 with a crewed launch planned for 2010.
One of six finalists in last year’s COTS program, t/Space continues to develop its air-launched capsule design and intends to compete for a NASA cargo-delivery contract when the agency seeks bids for that work around 2010.
David Gump, t/Space’s president, said the Space Act Agreement will ensure the company “stays in the information flow” as NASA’s technical requirements for cargo missions to the ISS change.
“And we have a quarterly opportunity to keep NASA in our information flow as we complete the steps of our milestones. NASA will be an impartial, but expert third party, monitoring our progress, which will help the broader world understand our accomplishments,” Gump wrote in an e-mail. “Also, should NASA need another COTS player, they are up to date on our ability to respond.”
Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at the Johnson Space Center, said NASA’s goal is to help facilitate access to low Earth orbit. The new Space Act agreements address just two of the some 21 proposals NASA received from private firms during the COTS competition.
“There were some excellent ideas there,” Lindenmoyer said in a telephone interview. “It’s just that we didn’t have enough money to fund all those studies.”
NASA has budgeted $1.2 billion of the $2.1 billion it says it expects to spend on crew and cargo services for the station between 2008 and 2012. NASA officials said the money is for Russian Progress and Soyuz flights as well as U.S. commercial alternatives. The crew and cargo services money does not include the $500 million NASA is spending to help Rocketplace Kistler and SpaceX develop their rival systems.