The Commercial Orbital Transport Systems Competition

On August 18th, NASA announced the two winners of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) competition. These companies are Space Explorations Technlogies (SpaceX) and Rocketplane-Kistler (Rp-K). The two companies will split about a half billion dollars, two hundred seventy eight million dollars to SpaceX and two hundred and seven million dollars to Rp-K, to go toward the financing of orbital vehicles capable of taking supplies and people to and from the International Space Station. The money will be paid out in installments, based on the achievement of certain milestones, over the next five years. Both SpaceX and Rp-K have pledged an undisclosed amount of private funding to supplement the money being granted them by NASA.

The milestones that both companies will be required to meet include test flights of actual hardware, cumulating in a demonstration flight to the International Space Station in about 2010. This represents a remarkable departure in the way NASA usually does business. Usually, instead of making payments based on performance, NASA has paid aerospace companies for hardware and services based on the estimated cost of the product, such as a space craft, plus an agreed upon amount of money for profit. This “cost plus” arrangement, while proving a certain amount of funding stability for the aerospace company, makes it more difficult to control cost overruns. The traditional “cost plus” approach is how NASA is running the project to build the Crewed Exploration Vehicle (CEV), designed to take astronauts back to the Moon.

SpaceX and Rp-K are approaching the COTS competition in different ways. They proposed to build space craft based on hardware that is already under development.

SpaceX, the company founded by internet tycoon Elon Musk, proposes to build a cargo version and a crewed version of a space capsule called the Dragon. The Dragon will be launched on a rocket called the Falcon 9, which SpaceX has been developing to capture the satellite market, among other purposes. The Dragon would rendezvous with the International Space Station where it would be captured by the station’s robot arm and would be brought in the rest of the way to berth with an air lock.

The Falcon 9 is designed to launch up to 24,750 kilograms into low Earth orbit for a cost of seventy eight million dollars, according to the SpaceX web site. That compares to a cost of two hundred fifty four million dollars to launch 25,800 kilograms into low Earth orbit estimated for the Delta IV Heavy, a competitor to the Falcon 9 built by the Boeing Corporation. The Falcon 9 will be a two staged launch vehicle. The first stage will be powered by nine Merlin LOX/Kerosene rocket engines with a combined thrust of 765.000 pounds and is designed to be reusable. The second stage will be powered by a single Merlin rocket engine. The Falcon 9 Heavy, which will launch the Dragon, will have two addition strap on stages with nine Merlin engines each. The Falcon 9 is scheduled to enter service in 2008.

The crewed version of the Dragon space capsule would accommodate up to seven astronauts, while the cargo version would deliver an undisclosed amount of supplies. The Dragon would have a common docking mechanism compatible to that which exists on the International Space Station, was well as facilities now under development such as the Bigelow “space hotel.” The airlock of the Dragon will be wide enough to transfer ISS International Standard Payload Racks (ISPR). The Dragon can remain in orbit up to six months. Upon return to Earth it will splash down in the ocean, though later versions may be capable of landing on land. SpaceX hopes that the Dragon will be ready to fly as early as 2009.

Rocketplane-Kistler plans to adapt the K1 launch vehicle, which has been under development for a number of years by Kistler even before it merged with Rocketplane. The K1 will be a two stage launch vehicle. The first stage, or Launch Assisted Platform, will be powered by three Aerojet AJ26-58/-59 LOX/kerosene engines. The second stage, or Orbital Vehical, will be powered by one Aerojet AJ26-60 LOX/kerosene engine. A cargo/crew extended module to be added to the Orbital Vehicle Stage will now be developed by Rp-K under the COTS program.

After the conclusion of the demonstration flights by SpaceX and Rp-K, NASA will hold an open competition for resupply and crew transfer contracts to the International Space Station. In recognition of the fact that even without COTS money, other companies might be able to develop their own orbital space vehicles, the competition will be open to everyone and not just SpaceX and Rp-K.

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