WASHINGTON — Despite being passed over by NASA for one of the contracts intended to help develop and demonstrate new ways to deliver supplies and even astronauts to the international space station, at least three of the four finalists who did not get deals for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) competition said they intend to press ahead, with hopes of eventually winning some NASA station re-supply business.
NASA announced Aug. 18 that it had selected Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (), El Segundo, Calif., and Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler to share $500 million in funding under the COTS program to help complete the development of new launchers and spacecraft and demonstrate by 2010 that they can safely deliver cargo to the space station.
Neither company, however, is guaranteed a NASA re-supply service contract even if they successfully complete their demonstrations. NASA intends to hold a second competition — open to all comers — at the end of the decade for the actual service contracts.
Left out in the cold after NASA’s selection were four of the six companies the U.S. space agency identified in May as COTS finalists: Seattle-based Andrews Space; SpaceDev of Poway, Calif.; Houston-based Spacehab; and Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space), of Reston, Va.
Among those four, tiny t/Space was counting the most on a COTS win. The company was founded in 2004 in response to NASA’s new space exploration vision and the expectation that the agency would turn over more of the services it needs in low Earth orbit to the private sector. The company got an early boost from NASA when it was awarded a $3 million study contract, which eventually grew to $6 million, to help advise the agency on the best way to return to the Moon.
By the time NASA announced the COTS competition in 2005, t/Space was ready with an air-launched Crew Transfer Vehicle concept it said could be ready to deliver both cargo and astronauts to the station before the space shuttle retires in 2010. The t/Space proposal was backed up by several hardware developments, including the construction of a full-size engineering mockup of the crew capsule and a couple of drop tests.
As the COTS competition came to a head this summer, t/Space — along with SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler — was on many analysts’ shortlists of the finalists most likely to win a COTS contract .
The stakes were especially high for t/Space and Rocketplane Kistler since neither company has any recurring revenue to speak of. Analysts following the competition predicted that a loss would be all but fatal for t/Space or Rocketplane Kistler.
The t/Space team, however, disagrees, saying they still intend to be around at the end of the decade, ready to compete for space station re-supply contracts.
“We believe that we still have the most innovative and cost-effective solution and we hope to be there to provide services to NASA — to the station — later in the decade,” said Bretton Alexander said, vice president of government relations for t/Space.
Alexander acknowledged that the company was counting on a COTS win to kick development of the Crew Transfer Vehicle into high gear. But he said t/Space is revising its business plan and intends to stay in the game and complete its vehicle.
“Instead of doing it in one big program with one big chunk of money from the government we are looking at a step-by-step approach to developing a number of capabilities to serve a number of markets,” Alexander said.
Andrews Space also intends to stay in the game. Unlike t/Space, they have a number of government and commercial contracts to help support their 60-person operation. Andrews Space remained tight lipped throughout the COTS competition about their proposal to solve NASA’s space station re-supply needs, and the company still is not saying much. Andrews Space President Jason Andrews told Space News in an Aug. 30 e-mail that his company is interested in providing NASA with “affordable transportation systems” and planned to pursue future opportunities.
“I think NASA’s expectations were exceeded in that they had six great approaches for creating a commercial space transportation infrastructure for crew and cargo logistics services,” Andrews said. “Unfortunately they could only pick two to go forward. Hopefully NASA will use the COTS model, which has the potential to be a better value proposition for both NASA and the U.S. aerospace industry, for future procurements.”
In the meantime, Andrews said his company remains busy with several contracts to other companies that he is not permitted disclose, as well as a U.S. Air Force Hybrid Launch Vehicle technology development contract and Defense Advance Research Projects Agency contracts to demonstrate elements of the company’s Air Collection and Enrichment System, which is meant to make air-breathing launch vehicles possible. Andrews is projecting $10 million in revenues for 2006.
Spacehab has been around the longest of the non-selected COTS finalists. The publicly traded company specializes in building and leasing space hardware to NASA for use on the space shuttle and international space station. Spacehab had more than $50 million in revenues for 2005 spread across three major business lines.
Mike Bain, Spacehab’s chief operating officer, said the company might still pursue development of its proposed Apex cargo carrier for use by NASA or other customers needing to get cargo into space. “We have to go back and look at the business case,” Bain said in an Aug. 29 interview. “Somewhere along the line if there is a big enough commercial market we will consider developing some version of Apex.”
Bain said losing COTS was a bigger hit to Spacehab’s morale than its bottom line. “I cannot say it’s a huge impact on the company, but it’s a significant emotional event for us,” he said. “We thought we had the best proposal. What NASA chose in our opinion is not the best re-supply option but the best alternative launch system option.”
Spacehab, which has built and flown pressurized cargo carriers for the space station, was designing the Apex to launch atop an existing rocket — the Atlas 5 Evolved E xpendable Launch Vehicle. Bain said the size of Apex combined with the power of the Atlas 5 could meet NASA’s annual space station re-supply requirements with two launches.
Bain said NASA’s objectives for the COTS program appeared to have morphed over the course of the competition.
“They conveyed to us that the interest was in a very reliable, low-cost cargo delivery service,” Bain said. “When I started looking at a launch vehicle to go with our cargo delivery service, an unproven launch vehicle just did not fit with what we thought they wanted.”
“We spent a lot of time putting a proposal together for a low-cost cargo delivery service and in the end they decided they wanted a new launch vehicle,” he said.
Spacehab is not the first COTS contender to say cargo delivery took a backseat to new launcher development since the competition was kicked off late last year. Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Constellation Services International, which was not among the six finalists, said this summer that it felt the focus of the COTS effort had drifted from its original conception. Constellation Services proposed a Russian-built cargo container that could be launched on U.S. or Russian rockets and dock with the station with the assistance of the proven Russian Progress supply ships that are launched to the station several times a year.
SpaceDev spokesman Mike Graff said Aug. 30 that company chief executive officer Mark Sirangelo was on travel and not available for an interview. The Poway, Calif.-based company, founded in the late 1990s, builds small satellites and has a number of U.S. government technology development contracts.