NASA Still Planning Commercial, Not Japanese, Cargo Transport To Space Station

By | July 21, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

NASA isn’t planning to award future contracts to the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) or to the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide cargo transport to the International Space Station, NASA announced today.

Rather, the U.S. space agency still wishes to obtain commercial transport services from private firms, according to NASA.

While some news reports have indicated that NASA is negotiating with JAXA to use the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles, "NASA has not officially or unofficially been discussing the purchase of H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTV) — uninhabited resupply cargo ships for the space station — from the Japanese Space Agency," NASA stated.

NASA also isn’t planning to contract for use of the European Space Agency transport craft, the robotic Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), NASA continued.

To be sure, NASA previously has executed memoranda of understanding in which it will send some cargo to the space station aboard ATV and HTV craft.

The problem arose because the existing U.S. crew and cargo transport system is being discarded soon to save money that will help to pay for development of a new U.S. crew and cargo space system.

Even though NASA has been in the space launch business for half a century, the agency is coming to a point in 2010 where, for half a decade, it won’t even be able to get one of its astronauts, or one pound of cargo, into low Earth orbit.

The space shuttle fleet has been commanded to retire by October 2010, and NASA won’t have another U.S. spacecraft (the Orion-Ares system being developed in the Constellation Program) until a manned flight lifts off in 2015.

To fill that yawning half-decade gap, NASA must depend on others to take cargo and crew to the space station.

In the case of astronauts going to the station, NASA is negotiating contracts to use Russian Soyuz vehicles. The Russians will provide U.S. crew transport missions for half a decade, unless a commercial firm develops dependable human space transport capabilities before then.

That has made many lawmakers in Congress unhappy. They note that the major money that NASA will pay the Russians could have been used to keep U.S. space shuttles flying during the gap. Some lawmakers wish to extend shuttle flights beyond October 2010.

As for cargo, NASA has provided seed-incentive money, but not full development costs, to two firms in a commercial orbital transportation services, or COTS, program.

They are Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB]. Development costs are funded from private capital. Development of the competing private cargo space transport craft is continuing.

At least, some lawmakers have said, cargo transport would be done by U.S. firms, even if the U.S. space agency isn’t performing those critical missions.

But then came reports that NASA is planning future contracts to purchase cargo carrying missions from JAXA and ESA.

Not so, according to U.S. space officials.

"NASA is committed to domestic commercial cargo resupply to the space station and does not plan to procure cargo delivery services from Japan," NASA stated.

Now, it also is true that "as part of our original agreements as compensation for common system operating costs NASA has limited cargo capability on the Japanese and European cargo vehicles," NASA explained. But that doesn’t mean NASA is poised to issue contracts for ESA or JAXA cargo services.

"NASA has recently issued a request for proposal for the cargo needs of [the] International Space Station beyond those supplied by our current international agreements," the space agency stated. "NASA has chosen to depend on commercial resupply of cargo delivery to the station."

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