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NASA Awards Orbital, SpaceX ISS Resupply Flight Contracts

By | January 5, 2009

      Space Agency Moves To Foster Private Commercial Logistics Spacecraft

      NASA, in a double departure from business as usual, has taken a giant step toward privatizing the transport of cargo to and from low Earth orbit, while also shifting from the common practice of giving major contracts to the biggest contractors.

      Rather, the U.S. space agency has turned to smaller companies to provide commercial spacecraft capable of reaching the International Space Station, a move that promises to make them major players in the space program, if the effort succeeds.

      NASA awarded contracts worth at least $3.5 billion for commercial cargo flights on private spacecraft that would fly to the International Space Station, with $1.9 billion going to Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB] and $1.6 billion going to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX).

      But the contracts could be worth far more, a total of $6.2 billion split evenly between the two firms.

      The space agency announced plans to buy eight flights from Orbital and a dozen Flights from SpaceX.

      Those flights would be provided from now through Dec. 31, 2016.

      NASA wishes to purchase space logistics flights from private companies because President Bush ordered the U.S. space shuttle fleet to cease flying by October 2010, and the replacement next-generation U.S. spacecraft system, Orion-Ares, won’t launch its first manned flight until 2015.

      In that half-decade gap, NASA — for now the only space agency to send men to the moon — won’t be able to send a even single U.S. astronaut to space. Instead, NASA will have to depend on others, including the Russians and their sometimes troubled Soyuz spaceships, to taxi U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. Russia also has the Proton robotic, one-way cargo spaceships.

      Aside from Russia, NASA also may be able to buy cargo delivery services from the European Space Agency and its robotic ship, or others.

      The contracts with Orbital and SpaceX each call for delivery of a minimum of 20 metric tons of upmass cargo to the space station. The contracts also call for delivery of non- standard services in support of cargo resupply, including analysis and special tasks as the government determines are necessary.

      NASA set production milestones and reviews on the contracts to monitor progress toward providing services.

      The maximum potential value of each contract is about $3.1 billion, or a total of $6.2 billion for both.

      Previously, NASA provided seed money to Orbital and SpaceX, but the two firms had to raise their own capital to fund development of rockets capable of orbiting logistics payloads.

      Both Orbital and SpaceX have shown competence in rocketry, after overcoming difficulties typical of any lifter development effort.

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