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Image: Crew Transfer Vehicle
Mark Maxwell and t/Space
In this artist’s conception, Transformational Space’s Crew Transfer Vehicle orbits near the international space station. The t/Space concept is one of several being proposed to NASA for servicing the space station.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/20/2006 6:07:58 PM ET 2006-03-20T23:07:58

More than 20 companies have submitted proposals to provide NASA with transportation services to the international space station, marking the start of a $500 million experiment in space commercialization.

The companies range from well-established aerospace firms to freshly minted startups. Some of them have laid out in detail what they're proposing for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. Others are unwilling to confirm publicly that they've made a proposal.

NASA itself declines to say who is participating in the COTS competition, or even confirm how many are participating. But sources involved in the competition have made clear that at least 20 companies are in the game — often combined in groups of potential contractors.

The deadline for submitting proposals passed earlier this month, and NASA is expected to select the COTS winners in June.

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Some see the COTS program as a prime opportunity for NASA to capitalize upon — and encourage — a new wave of entrepreneurship sweeping through the U.S. launch industry. Others are more wary about the program, fearing that much of the promised $500 million may be diverted to fund NASA's far costlier effort to roll out its own Crew Exploration Vehicle in the 2012-2014 time frame.

Two teams are vying to win NASA's nod for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV: One is led by Lockheed Martin, and the other is headed by Northrop Grumman with the Boeing Co. as subcontractor. The winning team for that multibillion-dollar project is due to be selected this summer.

Stopgap and insurance
The COTS program serves as a stopgap measure and something of an insurance policy for the CEV. If the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010 as currently planned, there would be a gap of at least a couple of years in NASA's ability to service the space station. Russian and European spaceships could fill that gap, but NASA also wants to be able to turn to U.S. companies that could transfer cargo and eventually humans between Earth and the orbital station — particularly if it takes longer than expected to develop the CEV.

That's why the space agency has budgeted $500 million through 2010 to fund demonstrations of such private-sector capability. The first phase of the COTS program would focus on unmanned cargo delivery, and an optional second phase would expand that to crew transport.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin emphasizes that the COTS effort, unlike the space agency's past programs or even the CEV program, would be aimed at purchasing services rather than funding the design and construction of a spaceship from the ground up. "It will not be government 'business as usual,'" he told a conference last year (PDF file).

In Griffin's view, commercializing space station supply operations would free up NASA to focus on spaceships for the moon and beyond .

Entrepreneurial muscle
Barron Beneski, spokesman for Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., said his company welcomed the opportunity to flex its entrepreneurial muscle. "Orbital grew up out of the private sector with venture capital," he said, "and the first products were all privately developed."

Today, NASA and other government agencies use Orbital's Pegasus air-launch system to put satellites in orbit, with the Space Technology 5 mission next on the schedule. Orbital is also part of the Lockheed Martin team vying for the CEV project.

Who’s in, who’s out
Beneski confirmed that Orbital submitted a COTS proposal as the prime contractor, in combination with other companies. However, he declined to say anything more about the proposal. "We're going to hold our cards," he said.

Such reticence is typical for the larger players in the aerospace industry, and even some of the smaller ones. David Gump, president of Transformational Space Corp., or t/Space, confirmed that his consortium submitted a proposal for a "piloted, air-launched" space vehicle but was reluctant to discuss the details.

Gump explained that NASA would call in the companies behind the more promising proposals for a "best and final round" of discussion — and that saying too much at this stage of the game could give more ammunition to rivals during that crucial phase of the competition.

"We're going to be cautious," he told MSNBC.com.

That's the guiding principle as well for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two biggest players in the U.S. spaceflight industry. Neither company has confirmed putting forward a COTS proposal. However, the responses to MSNBC.com's inquiries over the past week strongly hint at their participation. Within each company, various divisions have referred the inquiries to one designated division — which was still mulling over the requests for comment as of Monday.

In contrast, Northrop Grumman spokesman Greg Zwernemann did respond to inquiries, saying that the company was sitting out this round of the competition. Northrop Grumman may join up with a COTS consortium at a later stage, however. "We're looking at different options," Zwernemann told MSNBC.com.

In addition to Orbital, the six-partner t/Space consortium and probably Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the COTS lineup includes these other groupings:

  • Spacehab: Texas-based Spacehab, which has provided research modules for the space shuttles, says it is proposing the use of its Apex space transport system . Partners in the proposal include Colorado-based Ball Aerospace, which has built equipment for spacecraft ranging from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and Canada's MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, or MDA, which developed the robotic arms used on the shuttle and space station.
  • SpaceX: Backed by millionaire founder Elon Musk, California-based Space Exploration Technologies says it would service the space station with its Dragon space capsule , launched by its Falcon 9 rocket. Other partners in the proposal include Spacehab, MDA, ARES Corp., Odyssey Space Research and Paragon Space Development Corp.
  • Rocketplane / Kistler: Last month, Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. joined forces with Kistler Aerospace, a Washington state firm that had already been working on a launch system for servicing the space station. Rocketplane has been focusing on suborbital spaceflight, using rocket/jet planes. But for the COTS program, the newly merged venture is proposing the use of Kistler's K-1 reusable rocket.
  • PlanetSpace: The Canadian-American venture has proposed the Silver Dart, an updated version of a 1960s-era space glider known as the FDL-7. The craft would be powered into space by a beefed-up Canadian Arrow rocket, whis is based on the decades-old V-2 design. PlanetSpace's chairman and chief financial backer, Chirinjeev Kathuria, confirmed to MSNBC.com that the company submitted a COTS proposal. He said PlanetSpace has put together "a fairly strong consortium of aerospace companies, government agencies and financial institutions," but declined to provide details.
  • Advent Launch Services: Texas-based Advent has proposed using a scaled-up version of its methane-fueled rocket to deliver payloads into orbit. The company's founder, Jim Akkerman, confirmed a report on the COTS proposal published on the "Dispatches From the Final Frontier" Web log, and said his initial proposal focused only on the delivery to orbit rather than on the capsule or docking system. If the initial proposal is funded, "we could team up with some of the biggies who have a docking module," he said.
  • Venturer Aerospace: Last week, California-based Venturer Aerospace said it was pursuing a COTS contract for use of its Venturer S-550 orbital capsule. The reusable capsule could be launched on a SpaceX rocket, according to a Venturer news release.
  • SpaceDev: Although California-based SpaceDev has not made an official announcement, company founder Jim Benson has said the company would submit a long-planned COTS proposal based on its Dream Chaser concept , in cooperation with other "household-name" industry partners. The Dream Chaser spaceship is modeled after the HL-20 mini-shuttle that was designed by NASA in the 1980s. The spaceship could be put into orbit by booster rockets under development at SpaceDev.

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