NASA has awarded cargo-shuttling contracts — expected to translate into billions of dollars in unmanned missions to the International Space Station — to SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada.
Formal awards of missions, expected to begin in 2019 and run through 2024, still must be made. NASA didn’t estimate likely cost figures but noted the maximum cost to the agency for ISS missions from 2016 through 2024 is $14 billion.
The contracts follow high-profile mission failures by Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital ATK under a previous round of contracts.
The contract for Sierra Nevada is a first-time ISS award for the Sparks, Nev.-based company, which is developing a reusable Dream Chaser spaceplane that will ride atop an Atlas V launch vehicle made by United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colo.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin also had submitted proposals for cargo shuttling but were eliminated from consideration late last year.
The ISS cargo contracts were announced by video conference from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Jan. 14.
“Each one of the contracts is unique, and that’s part of the great news about these contracts,” said Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager at Johnson. “We look very much forward to working with Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX in the future.”
NASA administrator Charles Bolden lauded the contracts in a related blog post.
“Few would have imagined back in 2010 when President Barack Obama pledged that NASA would work ‘with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable,’ that less than six years later we’d be able to say commercial carriers have transported 35,000 pounds of space cargo (and counting!) to the International Space Station — or that we’d be so firmly on track to return launches of American astronauts to the ISS from American soil on American commercial carriers,” Bolden wrote. “But that is exactly what is happening. Today’s announcement is a big deal that will move the president’s vision further into the future.”
Orbital sought a minimum of three next-round cargo missions, while SpaceX and Sierra Nevada required at least two apiece in their submissions to NASA. The contracts guarantee NASA that the companies can mount up to six missions apiece.
For SpaceX and Orbital, the contracts represent a second consecutive day of positive contract news, after the Air Force tapped the rocket rivals to help advance its move away from Russian-made rockets with $80.5 million in development contracts.
Orbital will get $46.9 million for development of the common booster segment main stage and related components, and an extendable nozzle for Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin’s BE-3U/EN upper-stage engine.
SpaceX will get $33.6 million for development testing of its new Raptor upper-stage engine, which is intended to facilitate deep-space missions to Mars and beyond.
“The Air Force is still in negotiations with (others) and subsequent awards, if any, will occur over the next few months,” officials said.
The awards are part of a push by the U.S. military, Congress and NASA to transition away from the Russian-supplied RD-180 propulsion system used on the Atlas V rocket.
“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements is our end goal,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s executive officer for space. “These awards are essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space (and to) support the U.S. launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.”
Also earlier this week, an advisory committee that reports to NASA and Congress recently found that a string of unmanned rocket explosions during the past year underscores the need for continued competition among commercial space companies.
The annual report by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, released Jan. 13., is based in part on the panel’s fact-finding visits to companies and quarterly public meetings.
“The panel continues to steadfastly believe competition between Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is essential to achieving a safe and productive commercial crew program,” panel chairman and retired Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer said.
“The Orbital-3, SpaceX CRS-7, and Russian Soyuz/Progress 59 cargo accidents underscore this position,” Dyer said. “The three cargo accidents and resulting loss of resupply missions, yielded a challenging year for the International Space Station. But NASA’s planning and logistics stewardship of the ISS minimized impact and allowed for continued operations.”
Congress established the safety panel in 1968 to provide advice and make recommendations to the NASA administrator on safety matters after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, in which three U.S. astronauts died.