NASA selects RpK and SpaceX for $500m programme

Space Shuttle robotic arm supplier MDA will provide NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme winner Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) with orbital rendezvous expertise, while Orbital Sciences is to manage vehicle development for the other COTS contractor, Rocketplane-Kistler (RpK).

The details emerged after the award of COTS Space Act Agreement (SAA) contracts to RpK and SpaceX totalling $485 million on 18 August. An SAA enables a company to use the space agency's facilities. The companies are also supplementing NASA funds with private financing.

During COTS phase one, which lasts through 2010 or later, they must show cargo delivery and return capabilities with the option of demonstrating crew transport. Demonstrations could begin as early as 2008. Once demonstrated NASA plans to procure such services for phase two.

RpK, awarded $207 million, is to have final integration of its proposed fully reusable K-1 booster performed by Lockheed Martin at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility, in Louisiana, where Lockheed builds the Space Shuttle external tank. The K-1's assembly and all activities relating to its final development and first launch in 2008 are to be overseen by RpK's primary industrial partner Orbital Sciences. The K-1's maiden flight could be from RpK's launch site in Woomera in Australia.

SpaceX, awarded $278 million, will make the first COTS launch of its proposed Falcon 9 in the fourth quarter of 2008 from the Pacific Kwajalein Atoll. However, the California-based company, which has five industrial partners, wants to operate COTS flights from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


© Spacex 

Dragon would carry seven crew

The K-1 and Falcon 9 are two-stage vehicles that use engines fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene. The Falcon 9 is expected to put 8,700kg (19,100lb) into low-Earth orbit using nine first stage Merlin-1c engines, now in development. These will each provide 90,000lb (400kN) thrust at sea level. A single vacuum variant with restart capability will propel the second stage. More Falcon 9 technical data will be available in September.

"We have three demonstration flights [for the COTS programme]," says SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk. RpK's K-1 uses Russian designed Aerojet engines and its cargo delivery vehicle its reusable second stage. SpaceX intends to use a capsule called Dragon. It entered development in 2004 and can carry cargo or seven astronauts. Musk wants to develop its thermal protection system in-house and aims to have a prototype capsule built early next year.

SpaceX's COTS partner Paragon Space Development will provide life-support systems for the capsule. Musk's other industrial partners are Odyssey Space Research, Spacehab and Ares, which will provide safety and mission assurance expertise. RpK's other partners include Orbitec, Alenia Spazio, Oceaneering and Northrop Grumman.

Read Rob Coppinger's blog about the poisoned chalice that is NASA's $200 million Commercial Orbital Space Transportation demonstration contracts

Source: Flight International