– NASA intends to decide by spring whether to pay
to deliver 2,000 kilograms of cargo to the international space station in early 2009 or seek competitive bids for the service.


With the
space shuttle fleet focused on completing assembly of the space station by the end of 2010, NASA began paying
early last year to help resupply the orbital outpost and haul away trash using unmanned Progress ships. NASA also has paid
since then to transport
astronauts to and from the station in three-person Soyuz capsules.


NASA paid for the first year of Progress and Soyuz flights under a $43.8 million deal it signed with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) shortly after the U.S. Congress suspended a law in late 2005 barring NASA from making such purchases.


In October, NASA extended the deal two years, giving Roskosmos a $160 million contract modification that covers accommodations for
astronauts on two station-bound Soyuz vehicles departing in 2007 and 2008 and the delivery of 3,000 kilograms of cargo in eight Progress flights launching over the same time period.


A single Progress M vehicle, according to NASA’s space station user guide, can carry a maximum of 1,800 kilograms of pressurized cargo and haul away 1,000 to 1,600 kilograms of trash and 400 kilograms of waste water.


Looking ahead to 2009, NASA anticipates having to deliver 2,000 kilogram of cargo to the station early that year on a vehicle other than the space shuttle, according to agency spokesman Allard Beutel.


Rather than placing an order now for additional Progress services, Beutel said, NASA is giving all comers a chance to convince the agency that a competition is in order for what he characterized as “the spring cargo run.”


On Dec. 22, NASA issued a formal request for information (RFI) seeking input from domestic and foreign companies that think they can be ready by April 2009 to deliver 2,000 kilograms of pressurized cargo to the station and haul away a comparable mass of trash.


“The RFI simply seeks to ensure that we examine all potential providers of cargo services to the station to better understand the capabilities that may be available in 2009 when there is expected to be a two-metric-ton shortfall in available cargo space,” Beutel said. “The RFI is open to all sources – foreign and domestic – including Roskosmos and other space station partners.”


Beutel said NASA had received four responses by the Jan. 8 deadline and was in the process of evaluating them. He declined to say who had responded since that information is considered proprietary.


“How and whether we move ahead really all depends on what is determined from our evaluation of the responses. If something has potential, we would expect to issue a request for proposals,” Beutel said. “We expect we’ll be able to determine by this spring whether we’re able to move forward with any of the responses.”


The RFI was prompted at least in part by prodding from Constellation Services International, a tiny company that has been trying for several years to convince NASA it has a viable, near-term solution to the agency’s cargo-delivery needs.


Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Constellation Services has received $3.2 million in NASA study money since 2002 to refine its so-called LEO Express concept, which entails launching a cargo canister into orbit to be retrieved and ferried to the space station by a Progress ship that already has dropped off its load. Charles Miller, the company’s president, said the LEO Express cargo canister, autonomous rendezvous system and docking hardware initially would be built by RSC Energia of Korolev,
, which builds the Progress and Soyuz capsules.


Miller said the Energia-built canister would be brought to the
United States
to be loaded with cargo and then launched atop a
rocket to an orbit near the space station. Constellation Services eventually would build the canister in the
United States
and launch it in combination with another
vehicle certified to dock with the space station, such the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the six-person capsule NASA hopes to bring on line no later than 2014.


The plan is to “convert this to a 100 percent
system,” Miller said. “The only reason we use Russian systems is because the only way to close a business case is to use proven and off-the-shelf technology, and we are businessmen, not technology developers.”


Constellation Services submitted a proposal last year for a portion of the $500 million NASA plans to spend under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to foster by 2010 a domestic alternative to buying Progress flights. But the agency passed over that bid and more than a dozen others to pick Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler and El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies to split the demonstration money.


Rocketplane Kistler and Space Exploration Technologies both are targeting 2009 for their first demonstration flights to the space station, but NASA does not expect either company to be ready much before 2010 to begin making regular cargo runs.


Beutel said the RFI is NASA’s way of assessing what alternatives to Progress, if any, might be available before the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program yields a domestic resupply option.