New NASA Pacts Look To Rush Commercial Space Tech to Shelves

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WASHINGTON — NASA plans to award unfunded Space Act Agreements to four U.S. companies in a bid to rush new space technologies to the shelves in five years or fewer, the agency announced in a Dec. 23 press release.

NASA solicited proposals for the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities agreements in March and settled on the winners in December. The goal is to make the technology being developed “commercially available to government and non-government customers within approximately the next five years,” NASA said.

Unfunded Space Act Agreements provide no money to awardees but allow NASA to share its facilities and expertise. The deals announced Dec. 23 will run for at least two-and-a-half years, once finalized, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz wrote in a Dec. 24 email.

The winning companies are:

  • ATK Space Systems of Beltsville, Maryland, which will develop “space logistics, hosted payload and other space transportation capabilities,” NASA said. In its own Dec. 23 press release, ATK said its Space Act Agreement will help advance “near-term core technologies for satellite life extension, robotic satellite repair, and satellite refueling.” ATK, which is set to merge with Orbital Sciences Corp. in February, has been kicking around autonomous satellite servicing concepts since 2011 through its ViviSat joint venture with Sterling, Virginia-based U.S. Space.
  • Final Frontier Design of Brooklyn, New York, which is developing spacesuits to be worn inside spacecraft during launch and re-entry. In a Dec. 23 email, Ted Southern, president of Final Frontier Design, said the company will advance the 4G — for fourth-generation — spacesuits through a milestone known as a critical design review: the last check before manufacturing begins. Southern said the work will be done “in Brooklyn, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Florida, at the Kennedy Space Center with the partnership of Starfighters Aerospace, and in Houston, at the Johnson Space Center.” Southern estimated this work would take roughly two years to finish.
  • Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, which is already a key contractor on NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs. Under the new Space Act Agreement, SpaceX will work on “space transportation capabilities that could be used to support missions into deep space,” NASA said. SpaceX has never launched a deep-space mission but has made no secrets of its desire to fly to Mars. SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined to discuss the specifics of the company’s Space Act Agreement.
  • United Launch Alliance of Denver, which is developing “new launch vehicle capabilities to reduce cost and enhance performance,” NASA said. ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye, reached by email Dec. 23, would not discuss the details. It was not clear whether the unfunded NASA work had anything to do with the new hydrogen-fueled engine ULA is already working on for its Atlas 5 rocket in cooperation with Blue Origin, the secretive Kent, Washington-based rocket maker bankrolled by Amazon.com co-founder Jeff Bezos.

NASA posted the source selection document for the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities program Dec. 23.

The document, signed by Phil McAlister, director of commercial space flight development at NASA headquarters, provided few details about the winning proposals, but does reveal that McAlister shot down a proposal from Deep Space Industries of Houston, which aspires to mine asteroids. The company was recommended for an award by the participant evaluation board that vetted the 25 proposals received by NASA.

McAlister’s reasoning? Even though the Space Act Agreements are unfunded, the five finalists were competing for some of the same NASA resources. Five awards would spread those resources too thin, McAlister wrote in the source selection document.

SpaceX, ULA and ATK were considered locks, according to the document, so Deep Space Industries wound up in a sort of run-off competition with Final Frontier Design. The New York company won, in part, because McAlister saw no other NASA program that could connect Final Frontier Design with the expertise it needed to get the suit ready for manufacturing.

Conversely, McAlister said, the proposal from Deep Space Industries could conceivably win funding under an upcoming competition related to NASA’s oft-studied, but not yet funded, Asteroid Redirect Mission. Deep Space Industries was one of 18 companies that in June split $1.9 million in technology development funding NASA made available under an Asteroid Redirect Mission Broad Area Announcement, and McAlister thinks the company could go to that well again in the spring, when a follow-on competition is expected.

“The capabilities proposed by Deep Space Industries could be awarded through follow-on contracts or partnership agreements as soon as March 2015,” McAlister wrote in the source selection document.

In the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission,  a new robotic spacecraft would launch around the end of the decade and bring all or part of an asteroid to a lunar storage orbit for a visit by astronauts some time in the 2020s. The astronauts would fly aboard the NASA-controlled Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule. The agency views the robotic asteroid retrieval craft and mission-specific kits for Orion and its crew as prime candidates for commercialization.