The poisoned COTS chalice

I have to admit I was a little surprised when Rocketplane-Kistler (RpK) won one of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration $200 million-plus space act agreements (SAA).
It’s a lot of money but compared to what has to be achieved over the next four years, demonstration of cargo, and possibly crew, transportation to the International Space Station, its peanuts.
Rocketplane is a team of committed people working hard to turn a modified Learjet into a suborbital spacecraft.
They have some excellent engineers but they have always been cash strapped They have some excellent engineers but they have always been cash strapped and have made slow progress even when granted a $12 million tax credit by Oklahoma’s state government.
The second half of this organisation, Kistler, would not immediately enhance anyone’s confidence in RpK either. Kistler only came out of chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.
But it has a history, apparently, of raising lots of private capital. It certainly managed to get Lockheed Martin to manufacture its K-1 vehicle’s first and second stage liquid oxygen tanks at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility.
So the merger, carried out long before the COTS announcement, did in some way make sense but I still wasn’t sure that this new entity was anything more than an engineering consultancy using its spare time and cash to nudge its spacecraft work ahead.
Clearly NASA has decided, probably due to Kistler’s past work, that it is a horse worth backing.
Certainly a key aspect of NASA’s decision to award a team an SAA was its ability to raise private capital to match the US space agency’s funds.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the other COTS winner, can match funds in spades and was less of a surprise. Founded by internet billionaire Elon Musk SpaceX has already had one attempted launch of its Falcon 1 rocket and Musk is prepared to spend $100 million of his own money on his proposed COTS vehicle Falcon 9. That’s in addition to the $100 million he has already spent on Falcon 1. Cash isn’t a problem for SpaceX.
But it’s not just the huge differential in cash raising potential that makes me wonder about RpK and expect SpaceX to progress further.
RpK’s industrial arrangement is also a worry. It’s hived off virtually everything to Orbital Sciences and has other major aerospace companies involved, such as Northrop Grumman.
This would seem to be an advantage but in fact could present a problem that goes to the heart of why NASA created COTS in the first place.
There has for some time been a ground swell of opinion that the industrial structure of the US expendable space transportation industry and market is just all wrong – if you want the sort of reduce costs, increased volume, progress the automotive and mobile phone industries has made in the last few decades.
Certainly the cheerleaders of SpaceX, RpK in its previous guises, and Transformational Space, a COTS loser, would tell you so.
And clearly NASA has decided to give this strand of opinion a go, to give it enough money to either succeed or hang itself.
If you believe that the business structures, methods, accounting procedures of the existing NASA contractors are just plain wrong, what are you doing working with them? And does Lockheed really want to help a potential competitor to its launch services company?
I am left with a feeling that RpK now has access to fantastic experience but the cost base of these suppliers will consume that $200 million so fast the industrial partners’ bank balances will grow even fatter while K-1 stays put on the factory floor.
So that leaves SpaceX. With cash unlimited its problem is that it has little experience compared to RpK’s subcontractors. Of course it can poach those brains from the likes of Boeing, Northrop and Lockheed but there is still a lot of intellectual property it can’t access.
NASA has said either or both of the COTS SAA winners could lose out if they fail to meet the milestones that are required to continue funding.
Whether it be a financial crisis or hardware failure the odds, I think, are against either COTS winner delivering cargo in time. But I think SpaceX will have a mean satellite launcher at the end of it.

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