NASA has a lot more riding on a pair of upcoming commercial flights to the international space station than a token amount of cargo. Success in these missions, one by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () and the other by Orbital Sciences Corp., is crucial to the agency’s strategy of outsourcing space station logistics and, eventually, crew transport to the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.
The missions are also crucial for the companies: Success will enable them to begin executing on lucrative commercial contracts to deliver cargo to the station on a routine basis. The stakes are arguably higher for SpaceX, whose business is built largely around its Falcon 9 rocket and which has built up a substantial launch backlog with commercial satellite operators.
SpaceX is targeting an April launch of its Dragon capsule atop the Falcon 9, which has two successful launches under its belt, in a mission that would berth with the space station. If successful, this would be SpaceX’s final demonstration under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA.
Orbital hopes to carry out a similar COTS demonstration as soon as August with its Cygnus capsule and Antares rocket, but first must conduct an initial test flight of the launcher.
The outsourcing of low Earth orbit operations to the likes of SpaceX and Orbital is a pillar of NASA’s post-space shuttle strategy. The agency is spending $3 billion annually on the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion capsule for deep-space exploration while asking Congress — so far with limited success — to spend more than $800 million annually to subsidize development of private space taxis it hopes will begin taking fares by 2017.
Dragon’s upcoming launch — already more than two years behind schedule — now looks like it could occur just as a newly frugal Congress takes up a controversial NASA budget request for 2013. A successful demo could be a boon to the commercial crew program while a failure would obviously be a major setback.
SpaceX has accomplished more in its first 10 years of existence than many observers expected but not nearly as much as its brash founder, PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, had originally hoped.
Although it has built up an ambitious backlog of 40 launches — its customers now include established operators of geostationary as well as low Earth orbiting communications satellites — SpaceX’s rockets are only four for seven. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 small rocket scored two successes in five missions before being shelved so the company could focus on the medium-lift Falcon 9, which last flew in December 2010.
Over the next 12 months, SpaceX is slated to conduct a half-dozen missions, including its first official space station cargo run under the 12-flight, $1.6 billion NASA contract it won in December 2008. Also on tap is the first demonstration flight of a Falcon 9 Heavy, designed to carry twice the payload of’s proven 4 Heavy rocket, and the first Falcon 9 launch to geostationary transfer orbit.
Orbital is roughly twice the size of SpaceX and has a large business base outside the Antares rocket, including production of satellites for both government and commercial markets. Moreover, unlike SpaceX, Orbital is not pitching its space station logistics system as something that could be adapted to carry crews.
But Antares is a key part of Orbital’s strategy for moving up the space hardware food chain, from what the company’s chief executive, David Thompson, calls small space to medium space. And like SpaceX, Orbital is eager to begin conducting launches under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, an eight-flight deal valued at $1.9 billion.
Orbital is well behind schedule on its COTS effort, recently disclosing a slip of another four months that the company attributed to delays with the Antares launch pad at Wallops Island, Va., being developed by the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport Authority. The latest Cygnus launch date is dependent on a number of events, including a successful demonstration of Antares without the cargo carrier, now slated for June or July.
Meanwhile, Orbital has already begun booking CRS revenues, an accounting move that has gotten the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company says it has done nothing improper and is in discussions with the U.S. regulatory agency.
Orbital booked just under $250 million in CRS revenue in 2011 and expects to book about $375 million more in 2012, assuming it can fly its first CRS mission before the end of the year.