With RocketplaneKistler (RpK) two
s late completing a $500 million financing round, its competitors are urging NASA to call “time’s up” and reallocate what is left of the $207 million the U.S. space agency pledged last year to help the Oklahoma City-based company demonstrate the K-1 reusable rocket’s ability to deliver cargo to the international space station.
was one of two companies NASA selected last August under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to split roughly $500 million in public money to help fund the development of new launchers capable of delivering cargo to the international space station.
Several of the firms that lost out to RocketplaneKistler during last summer’s COTS competition would like to see NASA terminate RpK’s Space Act Agreement and use the unspent portion of the award to subsidize one or more new contenders for the space station resupply contracts it hopes to award before the space shuttle retires in 2010.
David Gump, president of COTS finalist Transformational Space Corp., or t/Space, is among those who would like to see NASA use any unspent COTS money that should become available to bring in new blood.
“There’s about $175 million left in the Rp
account,” Gump said in a recent interview. “If they split that between two of the unfunded entities they could have three very vibrant COTS competitors.”
Officials of El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, the only other company currently receiving financial help from NASA with its proposed space station resupply solution, say
should be given what is left of the money to accelerate development of a crewed-version of its reusable Dragon capsule.
and RpK both negotiated payment schedules with NASA last year for conducting crewed demonstration flights of their respective systems. But those flights are treated in the agreements as options beyond the demonstration of various cargo delivery and retrieval capabilities, referred to as COTS Capabilities A through C. Launching humans is called Capability D.
“We think that money should go to accelerating Capability D,” said SpaceX chief counsel Tim Hughes. “We think that’s the smarter play if the goal is to close the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability,”
The idea of
using vehicles developed under COTS to transport astronauts to the space station after the shuttle is retired but before its successor, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, is fielded has some advocates in Congress.
The House of Representatives approved a spending bill July 26 that included report language encouraging NASA “to consider exercising its option for the Commercial Cargo Capability (COTS) Capability D (crew transport) as soon as possible from unallocated, uncommitted, or otherwise available” COTS funds.
Gump, meanwhile, said if NASA wants to use RpK’s money to accelerate Capability D, giving it to SpaceX is not the agency’s only option. Choosing t/Space would support the same goal, he said, because its air-launched capsule would be crew-operated even during the early cargo runs.
While SpaceX, t/Space and others are busy talking to NASA about what they would do with RpK’s COTS money, RpK has not been declared in default of its agreement.
Although RpK missed an end-of-July goal for raising the $500 million in private investment it needs to finish and fly the K-1, the NASA official in charge of the COTS program said July 31 he was willing to give the company more time to complete its financing.
“RpK is making good progress and we are being patient to give them every opportunity to succeed,” Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Johnson Space Center-based Commercial Crew and Cargo program, said through a spokeswoman. “We have not given them a deadline, and as specified in the Space Act Agreement, are assessing the situation to determine if further efforts are in the best interest of both parties.”
NASA says RpK has performed well on its technical milestones. But the company has struggled from the beginning to meet its financial milestones on time.
The first missed deadline was last September when RpK requested and received a 30-day extension from NASA for completing the initial $40 million financing round.
About $120 million in second-round financing
was due at the end of February. But as that deadline approached, RpK was convinced by its investment banker Jeffries Quarterdeck that it could raise the full $500 million it needs this year rather than go back out with a third round in 2008.
NASA agreed to give RpK until the end of May to secure the full $500 million.
When May came and went without RpK able to nail down its financing, the company’s president, Randy Brinkley, told Space News and NASA he would have the money by mid July, later amending that unofficial deadline to the end of July.
Brinkley told Space News after the close of business July 31 that he was still working to complete RpK’s financing.
There is “still work in process on alignment of investor funding and also working on addressing near term bridge loan funding for subcontractors for August,” Brinkley wrote in an e-mail. “Finishing up a two-day successful [preliminary design review] on the pressurized cargo module today. NASA is very much aware and supportive of efforts to close open financing issues. Hope to have closure plan by the end of this week and will share with NASA at that time.”
Brinkley declined to provide more specifics on how close RpK is to completing its financing.
“While I would like to provide more detail for you it is not appropriate to do so at this time,” he wrote July 31 in a follow up e-mail. “I will certainly do so as soon as I am in a position to do so.”