NASA could select a winner of a $175 million space act agreement (SAA) for the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration (COTS) programme in the first quarter of 2008 following its proposal submission deadline of 20 November.

The US space agency announced on 18 October it would hold a competition for the $175 million, which remains from the original $206.8 million SAA with Oklahoma based-Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) that was terminated on the same day.

COTS is NASA’s programme to fund companies, when they reach agreed performance milestones, to help them develop cargo transportation systems to re-supply the International Space Station (ISS).

Following its selection in August 2006 RpK received $32.1 million of the $206.8 million after completing early programme milestones during its 14-months as a COTS participant. But financing problems stopped the company from meeting funding and technical milestones.

So NASA announced the new competition hours after Richard Gilbrech, associate administrator for the agency’s exploration systems mission directorate that oversees COTS, informed RpK of its agreement’s termination by letter on the afternoon of 18 October.

The winner of the $175 million would still have to demonstrate a cargo space transportation capability by 2010 because NASA requires such services from then when its Space Shuttle fleet is retired.

Speaking on 18 October NASA’s senior COTS official, commercial crew and cargo programme office manager Alan Lindenmoyer, said: “We'll be releasing a synopsis for the new competition Friday [19 October] and the full announcement for a new round of industry proposals on Monday [22 October].”

Companies that are US commercial providers, as defined in the country’s commercial space act, will be eligible. Lindenmoyer has already had COTS discussions with “traditional space programme suppliers,” suggesting it was the likes of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

And Lindenmoyer confirmed that existing COTS participant California based-Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) was eligible to bid for the $175 million SAA. On 18 October SpaceX told Flight it is interested in bidding for the extra cash.

Lindenmoyer also said that companies with unfunded COTS agreements, of which there are five, could bid and that some of those had already met agreed milestones and some had not.

In an interview with Flight on 18 October, after the announcement, RpK chairman and chief executive George French praised the COTS programme and said, “we will probably pursue [an unfunded SAA]”.

On 7 September the US space agency’s then exploration systems mission directorate associate administrator and former astronaut Scott “Doc” Horowitz had sent RpK a letter telling the company a 30-day minimum notification period that could result in SAA termination had begun.

A leaked letter from RpK in response to this notification accused NASA of undermining the company’s financing efforts, with its $719 million Russian transportation deal announced in April and its 7 August request for information from industry for ISS cargo delivery systems. The critical letter also suggested RpK had legal recourse following any termination. Lindenmoyer disagreed with that and French declined to comment on 18 October on any possible legal action.

Lindenmoyer defended the agency’s actions saying that it was known a deal would be done with the Russians because the agency needed to assure transportation and that the RFI was simply a way to collate information so the agency could plan how to structure the second phase of COTS, the selection of commercial ISS transportation suppliers.

For RpK NASA’s 30-day notification letter was the beginning of the end of a 14-month process that was brought to a close by the Oklahoma based company’s failure to meet two milestones, Milestone four, a second round of private fundraising worth $500 million; and Milestone five, a critical design review for its pressurised cargo module.

For concept launch system and technology demonstration videos from potential bidders for the $174.7 million go to Flight's Hyperbola blog