A Decade Of Commercial Transportation Blazes A Path For Successful Space Ventures

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Uncrewed Dream Chaser Docks to the ISS. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Uncrewed Dream Chaser Docks to the ISS. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

August 18, 2016 – In 2006, a new vision for space transportation in low-Earth orbit took form. Ten years later, the landscape of humanity’s doorstep into the cosmos has fundamentally changed, thanks to efforts by NASA and American commercial companies.

Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: A New Era in Spaceflight

At the time of the first Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) award in August 2006, NASA officials envisioned that commercial companies would take over low-Earth orbit transportation services while the agency focuses its research and development resources on deep space exploration.

NASA employed a two-phase strategy for developing commercial capabilities to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. COTS was a demonstration of a commercial partners’ capability, providing NASA an opportunity to assess performance prior to purchasing services. NASA then awarded Orbital ATK and SpaceX commercial resupply services contracts to each deliver at least 20 metric tons of cargo to the orbiting laboratory on their Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft, respectively.

Shortly after its successful ISS demonstration mission under COTS in May 2012, SpaceX quickly provided two critical resupply service missions to the orbiting laboratory under NASA’s follow-on CRS contract. As of August 2016, SpaceX has successfully completed eight flights to the station and delivered over 35,000 pounds of cargo.

In addition to allowing NASA to focus on extending humanity’s presence in space, COTS would stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and operate safe, reliable, and cost-effective commercial space transportation systems. Besides supporting ISS, these commercial capabilities could ultimately benefit the U.S. economy by making domestic launch vehicles more competitive in global markets. In turn, lower launch costs could bolster opportunities for other space markets to grow.

Orbital Sciences Corp., now Orbital ATK, was selected as a COTS partner in February 2008, and completed its ISS demonstration mission in the fall of 2013, joining SpaceX as the second company NASA would rely on for cargo delivery services to ISS. Orbital ATK has already delivered over 24,000 pounds of science experiments, hardware and supplies across five missions.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program took cues from COTS, as well. In September 2014, the agency selected Boeing and SpaceX to build independent systems capable of carrying up to four astronauts at a time plus cargo to the station. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon—both of which had been developed under Space Act Agreements—were chosen to begin manufacturing for flight tests first without crew and then with people aboard, returning crew launch capability to American soil.

The Next Step

As a follow on to the first commercial resupply services contract, NASA awarded three cargo contracts in January 2016 to ensure the critical science, research and technology demonstrations that are informing the agency’s journey to Mars are delivered to the International Space Station from 2019 through 2024. Returning companies Orbital ATK and SpaceX were joined by Sierra Nevada Corporation with each company awarded a minimum of six cargo resupply missions.

These new contracts build on NASA’s initial resupply partnerships with American companies and ensure it maintains the capability to resupply the space station from the United States through 2024. Knowledge gained through initial commercial resupply efforts was applied to the new awards, including specific delivery, return and disposal capabilities, as well as an optional accelerated return.

Selecting multiple providers assures access to station so crew members can continue to conduct the vital research of the National Lab. Awarding multiple contracts provides more options and reduces risk through a variety of launch options and mission types, providing the station program a robust portfolio of cargo services that will be necessary to maximize the utility of the station.

Work on these future missions is already underway. Newcomer Sierra Nevada Corporation successfully completed its first two milestones in July 2016, which included NASA approval of Sierra Nevada’s complete program implementation plan for the design, development, test and evaluation of the Dream Chaser Cargo System. NASA also assessed and fully approved SNC’s detailed approach for getting the Dream Chaser Cargo System to the International Space Station.

Returning companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK have also begun their integration with the space station and early milestones for CRS2.

The Future

Building on the successful legacy of COTS and CRS, NASA has enacted several initiatives to continue partnerships with the commercial space industry. A request for information released in July 2016 sought to understand which unique ISS capabilities can be used to boost commercial activity and foster a self-sustaining marketplace in low-Earth orbit. NASA also announced the selection of six companies to help advance the Journey to Mars by developing ground prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats. And NASA continues to work with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to put research from academia, commercial partners, government agencies and more to maximize use of the International Space station for innovation, which can benefit all humankind and inspire a new generation to look to the stars.

The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that enables us to demonstrate new technologies and make research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. The public-private partnerships, now more than a decade old, continue to build a strong commercial space industry, benefitting both NASA and American taxpayers.