NASA could place a commercial International Space Station resupply contract next year before any possible bidding company will demonstrate sending cargo to the ISS.
To replace NASA's cargo transport capability lost from the planned 2010 Space Shuttle fleet retirement, the US space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration programme's phase two during 2008 is to be a competitive procurement for ISS resupply services, with delivery potentially starting from July 2010.
COTS' ongoing first phase now only has California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) participating, with its planned Falcon 9 rocket to make three demonstration flights from Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex-40 from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009. But NASA is to select another phase one participant in the first quarter of 2008 following Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler's departure from the COTS programme in October.
While SpaceX's fourth quarter 2008 first flight will demonstrate the Falcon 9's ability to place its cargo-carrying Dragon spaceship into orbit and for that capsule to return to Earth, no other company is known to be preparing any COTS-related launches to achieve a realistic demonstration before 2009. But NASA still plans to place an ISS resupply services contract under its COTS phase two with a US company next year, essentially running that second stage concurrently with phase one.
This is because companies have told the agency that to accommodate industry lead times they need a contract next year. So the US agency intends to place the contract then. Its commercial crew and cargo programme office manager Alan Lindemoyer, who oversees COTS, told Flight: "It is possible that award could occur before SpaceX's first demonstration mission in late 2008...[however] the agency does plan to require an ISS capability demonstration before an actual mission launch."
With this arrangement, an ISS resupply contractor could go on to repeatedly fail to demonstrate a capability. Asked if NASA would terminate an ISS resupply contract if the supplier's pre-servicing mission capability demonstrations failed, Lindemoyer replied: "The specific acquisition strategy for ISS commercial resupply services is under development."
Under COTS phase one a cargo delivery capability demonstration is defined as a rendezvous with an agreed orbiting object and not necessarily going to the ISS.