Today NASA announced that they will be postponing the selection of two commercial cargo providers to be awarded the second round of Commercial Resupply contracts for the International Space Station (ISS) program. The news came the same day NASA was expected to announce the contract winners after numerous delays over the last year. NASA also announced that Boeing, one of the five contenders for the CRS-2 contract, will no longer be in the running.
According to a NASA spokesperson from Johnson Space Center, “The anticipated award date has been revised to no later than Jan. 30, 2016, to allow time to complete a thorough proposal evaluation and selection. Since the agency is in the process of evaluating proposals, we are in a procurement communications blackout. For that reason, NASA cannot answer questions about this procurement at this time.”
Currently, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), and Lockheed Martin remain in the running (unofficial reports state Lockheed is also out, but this has yet to be confirmed by either Lockheed or NASA).
This is the third time the CRS-2 contract decision has been delayed since the proposals were submitted in December 2014. In each case, NASA declined to give any details, other than the need for a deadline extension to further review the proposals. One of these delays came in the wake of the SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure, when both the current CRS providers were grounded. This latest delay would likely put off the CRS-2 contract decision until after Orbital ATK and SpaceX both resume their CRS services.
The CRS-2 contracts are intended to begin service in 2018 and supply the ISS through 2024. Each year, NASA expects delivery of 14,250 to 16,750 kg of pressurized cargo and 1,500 to 4,000 kg of unpressurized cargo. The CRS-2 contract is valued between $1.0 billion and $1.4 billion per year.
Boeing had submitted a proposal to use an unmanned cargo variant of their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in development for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Like the crewed Starliner, the cargo variant would also launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket and would land in the western United States, allowing for rapid payload return. The crew and cargo variants would have used the same hardware and infrastructure. Certain crew-specific components would have been stripped from the cargo version to save mass and volume, such as the launch abort system and some life support systems.
NASA did not give a reason for dropping Boeing’s proposal, but the company will now focus their efforts solely on the commercial crew contract.
“We are still in the competition, but cannot make any statements beyond that yet as we are still in a open competition.” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.
Dream Chaser, also developed for the Commercial Crew Program, is a reusable lifting-body spacecraft that resembles a smaller version of the Space Shuttle. After SNC lost their commercial crew contract bid to SpaceX and Boeing, the company proposed re-purposing their spacecraft to be a contender for CRS-2. The cargo variant of Dream Chaser would feature an innovative folding wing design that would allow the spacecraft to fit within a 5-meter diameter payload fairing. The cargo version could launch on either a ULA Atlas-V rocket or ESA’s Ariane 5 to deliver up to 5,000 kg of pressurized cargo to the ISS and land on a runway with 1750 kg of cargo for easy access.
SNC had contracted for an Atlas-V with ULA some time ago, making it easier to achieve a 2018 launch date.
According to SNC spokesperson Krystal Scordo, “SNC received notification this morning that the Government has decided to re-open discussions with offers in the competitive range for NASA’s CRS-2 contract. Therefore, the award announcement has been delayed to no later than January 30, 2016. SNC was selected to re-open discussions regarding its CRS-2 proposal.”
Orbital ATK is also pressing ahead with their CRS-2 contract bid, as the company prepares to return to flight with the debut mission of its enhanced Cygnus cargo freighter. Before last October’s Antares launch failure resulted in the loss of the Orb-3 mission, Cygnus successfully made three flights to the ISS, delivering roughly 3,500 kg of cargo to the station and removing 4200 kg of trash. With a cargo capacity of 3500 kg, the enhanced Cygnus offers the largest volume for pressurized cargo of all the potential CRS-2 providers.
While Cygnus is unable to return cargo to earth, it serves the equally critical role of removing trash from the station and disposing of it via destructive reentry. While Orbital ATK’s upgraded Antares rocket is nearing its return to flight, two Cygnus missions will fly on Atlas V rockets to maximize its cargo capacity and complete the first CRS contract in fewer flights.
SpaceX is also hoping to continue to provide cargo services to the ISS after the completion of their first CRS contract. Up until the launch failure of their CRS-7 mission in June, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft successfully flew seven resupply missions to the space station. Dragon is capable of delivering 3,300 kg to the station with a combination of pressurized and unpressurized cargo and can return 3,300 kg to earth via splashdown. SpaceX plans to return Dragon to flight in early January with the CRS-8 mission. SpaceX holds a commercial crew contract along with Boeing, for which it is developing a heavily modified crewed version of Dragon.
A SpaceX spokesperson declined comment on the CRS-2 postponement.
Lockheed Martin’s status in the competition remains unknown. The company has not addressed rumors that they are no longer in the running and no announcement of a withdrawal has been made my Lockheed Martin or NASA. Lockheed Martin’s proposal involved their Jupiter space tug, which would rendezvous with the Exoliner cargo module in orbit and ferry it to and from the station. Jupiter would be reusable and ferry multiple cargo containers while on orbit. The Exoliner would be expendable, burning up trash on reentry at the end of each mission.
To give NASA extra time to award the CRS-2 contracts, the original contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK were extended in order to meet the space station’s logistics requirements through the second quarter of 2018.With the decision date pushed to January 30, NASA’s decision could hinge on the outcomes of the Orbital ATK OA-4 and SpaceX CRS-8 missions. The reliability of the existing vehicles and the benefit of vehicle diversity when mission failures occur will be major considerations for NASA.