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NASA’s Effort to Boost Commercial Spaceflight

Nevertheless, Lueders says that the idea of reliable commercial launch vehicles “planted a seed in several administrations about making space not just for NASA.”



With support finally in place to move ahead with commercial transportation to the ISS, a two-step acquisition strategy was put in place to gain momentum quickly. Under the COTS program, NASA’s commercial partners via Space Act Agreements (NASA’s vehicle for partnering with external organizations) could demonstrate their capabilities.

“There were the traditional big aerospace companies,” Feng said. “And then there were several that had expressed interest over the years who kept saying, ‘Hey, NASA, we can do this for you. Give us the requirements and then let us implement it the way we want to.’”

After evaluation, NASA awarded Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts in 2008 to two companies: SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler. Later, Rocketplane Kistler was replaced by Orbital Sciences Corporation, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. The contracts covered delivery of cutting-edge science, critical ISS spares, and crew consumables, but the companies suggested that their vehicles could do more.

“The COTS program had made their original requests for proposals in the 2006 time frame for cargo resupply [services],” Lueders recalled. “When they made those initial requests, companies did come in with concepts with how they were also developing their crew transportation capability, it wasn’t just cargo.

artist concept Dream Chaser ISS web

An artist’s conception of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft on orbit. Dream Chaser is slated to begin ISS cargo resupply operations in 2020. Sierra Nevada Corporation image

“At that time, station really needed cargo capability with the shuttle retirement,” she continued. “I was working for station and we built our initial concepts for being able to use the capability that [NASA COTS Program Manager] Alan Lindenmoyer and his team were investing in under the Space Act Agreements.”


Commercial Cargo

Feng and Lueders agree that NASA’s decision to transform its role – from being an end-to-end manager of space vehicle development to outlining a small number of well-defined requirements for industry and leaving it to them to design and build cargo and crew vehicles – was a “catalyst” for the commercial cargo and crew programs.

“We were not very prescriptive in dictating the implementation,” Feng explained. “We just said, ‘Do these things. You have to have a certain failure tolerance. You have to build a proper interface with all of our systems – structural, life support, etc.’ Then we stepped back and said, ‘Whatever launch vehicle you choose, whatever configuration with a capsule or space plane, that’s up to you. Bring us 20 metric tons of upmass over this period of time.’”

“We called that the CRS-1 contract,” he added.

The agency has supported its commercial partners in many ways from the outset, Lueders said, offering them a wealth of knowledge they cannot access anywhere else.

The knowledge the partners (SpaceX, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Boeing) have availed themselves of stretches back to NASA’s early spaceflight programs.

Atlas V rocket ISS web

Fire lights up a crystal-clear blue sky on Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lofts NASA’s Juno planetary probe into space. NASA photo

“Apollo has been a wealth of experience,” Lueders said, citing the vehicle parachute testing NASA conducted decades ago during the historic program as an example of how SpaceX and Boeing have leveraged the agency’s data.

“For these companies, it would have been cost-prohibitive for them to go and replicate all of the data and what we learned from doing those early human spaceflight missions with their capsule designs,” she explained. “They really learned from that.”

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...