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A Close Look at NASA’s Outsourcing of International Space Station Resupply to SpaceX and Orbital January 25, 2009

Posted by Nick Azer in Int'l Space Station, NASA.


On December 23rd, NASA awarded two lucrative contracts ($1.6 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively) to private space companies SpaceX (recently the first company to launch a private rocket into orbit, a major milestone) and Orbital to take over resupply of the International Space Station. This represents a huge early step in what will be a defining trend of space policy in the next decade, and something that U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama has talked about:  the “amplifying”” of ” NASA’s reach” via the private sector, spurring both NASA’s effectiveness and the (potentially explosive) private space industry’s growth (and its role in a recovering American economy).

To this point, cargo resupply of the ISS has been handled by the U.S. Space Shuttle, Russian Progress freighter spacecraft, and the unmanned European Space Agency Automated Transfer Vehicle resupply craft. With a lot of private space companies looking at the Moon (including, eventually, SpaceX itself), this contract is a Falcon 9-sized boost for both their profile and potential across the board, whether they have their sights set on low Earth orbit, the lunar surface, or elsewhere.

SpaceX’s Dragon craft (to be launched via the Falcon 9 rocket), pictured at  top, is a versatile craft that can carry pressurized or unpressurized cargo (as this ISS contract is for), or be configured to carry up to seven crew members. Check out the official data sheet PDF for all the technical skinny (a spectacularly well-designed document, as is usual from SpaceX). SpaceX itself was founded back in 2002 by Paypal‘s co-founder, Elon Musk, and while currently focusing on low-earth-orbit services, has its eye on eventual lunar missions.

Eventually, SpaceX could also be given a contract/option for crewed missions to the ISS, which could prove a crucial detail in the wake of the 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle and resulting ‘shuttle gap’ between it and the Orion, scheduled to be ready in 2015. Currently the plan is for the U.S. to buy Russian Soyuz craft or potentially extend the Shuttle, though back in September an Orlando Sentinel article notes Barack Obama noted having commerical flights help close the gap as an option. On a related (and intruiging) note, the SpaceX contract could actually create 1,000 jobs for the Space Coast, something the area will need in the wake of the Shuttle retirement.

The other company awarded a contract (which is actually initially larger than SpaceX’s) is Orbital Sciences Corp., an established veteran in the manufacture, management, and launch of small-to-medium payloads (namely, a wide variety of satellites, including both military and commercial) with a deep involvement in missile defense.

Since the announcement in December, there has been a delay as far as the official status of the contracts: as reported by Reuters, a third contender for the contracts has filed a complaint about the awards–Chicago-based PlanetSpace, a partnership between Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Alliant (ATK) (the first two of which already supply launch rockets to the U.S. military space program, and the latter of which is doing work on NASA’s Ares I crew launch rocket). The complaint lodged to the Government Accountability Office states that PlanetSpace felt they had a better offer for the contract, and they should inseatd recieve one of the awards; the GAO stated that it will have a ruling on the complaint by April 29th.

Interesting side note about PlanetSpace: while their site and their background only notes low-earth-orbit projects, the Moon is featured distinctly in the opening intro animation…another major lunar player on the rise?



1. Decade in Review: The ’00s in Moon Colonization « Luna C/I: Moon Colonization and Integration - December 31, 2009

[…] 23rd, 2008: SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are awarded contracts to resupply the International Space Station, a duty previously performed by the Space […]

2. It’s Official: Constellation Cancelled, No NASA Return to Moon; Shift Towards Private Space « Luna C/I: Moon Colonization and Integration - February 1, 2010

[…] Obama clearly believes in the economic potential of an industry-focused NASA. Note that the ISS contract mentioned there is already awarded—SpaceX just needs to prove its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are human-ready for the […]

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[…] though, this actually builds off of a step taken just days into the Obama administration—the big Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts given to SpaceX and Orbital for the… (previously done by the Space […]

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