Weather Sat, CRS-2 Top U.S. Civil Space Procurement Agenda for 2015

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WASHINGTON — In two of this year’s higher-profile civil space procurements, NASA’s commercial cargo carriers face challengers for follow-on contracts to haul supplies to the International Space Station, while Ball Aerospace is competing to build another polar-orbiting weather spacecraft for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bids are in on NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-2 program, and while the agency has not said how many contracts it will award, at least two are expected in June. The program is intended to keep supplies flowing to the International Space Station from 2018, when the CRS-1 contracts held by Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX expire, through 2024, the year to which the White House has proposed extending station operations.

The current CRS contracts are worth a combined $3.5 billion and call for delivery of a combined 40 tons of cargo in just over five years.

Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems Division of Louisville, Colorado, have said they would challenge Orbital and SpaceX on CRS-2. Both new contenders will propose variants of the vehicles they developed under NASA’s commercial crew program, which aims to resume astronaut launches to the station from U.S. soil by 2017.

Boeing would use a variant of its CST-100 crew capsule that NASA selected for full-scale development under the program, while Sierra Nevada aims to offer a variant of its winged Dream Chaser spacecraft that did not make the cut. Both vehicles are designed to launch atop United Launch Alliance-built Atlas 5 rockets.

SpaceX released an animation Jan. 27 depicting its Falcon Heavy rocket lifting off from Kennedy's Launch Complex 39A. Credit: SpaceX screenshot
Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX screenshot

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX seems likely to have offered vehicles similar to the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that it currently uses to haul space station cargo. But the company has a Falcon Heavy in the late stages of development and also was selected to complete a crew-carrying Dragon capsule under the commercial crew program.

Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital is preparing a new version of its Antares rocket, which would use a single Russian RD-181 engine to loft the company’s Cygnus space capsule. The new engine, made by NPO Energomash of Khimki, Russia, and similar to the RD-180 that powers the Atlas 5 core stage, would replace the pair of AJ-26 engines the first incarnation of Antares used. Those engines, Soviet-vintage hardware refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, have been implicated in the Oct. 28 Antares explosion on what would have been Orbital’s third cargo mission to the space station.

On the science side of things, final proposals are due Feb. 16 for NASA’s next Discovery-class planetary science mission, which must launch by Dec. 31, 2021, and cost no more than $450 million. NASA will choose at least two finalists around June, with the final downselect expected in September.

The space agency is curtailing the involvement of international partners in the upcoming Discovery mission. Non-U.S. contributions may not exceed one-third of the total mission development cost or more than a third of the total cost of the science instruments.

Back on the ground, NASA is poised to commit about $1 billion, including options, to a follow-on for its main space medicine contract, which is administered by the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

El Segundo, California-based Wyle Laboratories, the incumbent under a Bioastronautics contract awarded in 2003 and now worth about $1.5 billion, is vying against SAIC of McLean, Virginia, for the follow-on NASA’s Human Health and Performance contract. The deal, put out for bids for a third time in November after dueling Government Accountability Office protests from Wyle and SAIC, will have a five-year base period with three-and two-year options. Bids are due Jan. 29 and an award is expected in July.

JPSS-1. Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies
JPSS-1. Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies

NOAA, meanwhile, will finally get around to awarding a contract for the second Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) weather spacecraft in April. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, which is building JPSS-1 under a $248 million fixed-price contract awarded in 2010, has submitted a proposal for JPSS-2, slated to launch in 2021, Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown wrote in a Jan. 23 email.

Other possible contenders include Orbital and Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Redondo Beach, California. Spokesmen for those companies declined to say whether they had submitted bids.

The JPSS program will cost about $11 billion and maintain global coverage in the early afternoon hours through 2028.

Like the Ball-built Suomi NPP satellite now in orbit, which was developed as a precursor but thrust into an operational role, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 will carry four main instruments: the Cross-track Infrared Sounder built by Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, New York; the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder built by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Azusa, California; the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo; and the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite built by Ball.

For JPSS-2, NOAA locked down copies of the instruments provided by Exelis and Northrop Grumman with sole-source, cost-plus contracts awarded in September and October, respectively. Exelis’ deal is valued at $221 million, Northrop’s at $121 million.

NOAA’s procurement plan for the rest of the JPSS program, expected to include at least two more JPSS satellites, will be unveiled as part of the White House’s 2016 budget request now expected in February, Steve Volz, who heads the agency’s satellite division, told SpaceNews in December. If NOAA has any plans to build a gap-filler satellite that would launch between JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, details could emerge then.