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Two private US companies to supply ISS

Posted on behalf of Ashley Yeager

NASA announced yesterday that two private companies, Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), will service the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2010.

Crewmembers aboard the ISS depend on regular deliveries of fuel, food, air and water to survive. Service vehicles, like NASA’s space shuttle, also drop off experimental equipment and spare parts that enable the crew to continually upgrade the space station.

But the US space agency plans to retire its shuttle program in 2010, and told legislators last April that it will stop asking for Congressional permission to buy cargo space on Russian Progress resupply vehicles after 2011. The ISS will depend on Europe’s Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle and the carriers that the two private companies will provide, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, announced in a 23 December media briefing.

Three companies—Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California and PlanetSpace of Illinois—had submitted proposals to win the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, which involves providing the ISS cargo carriers. Whereas the PlanetSpace team is made up of large established aerospace companies, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital are relative newcomers to the field.

The two winning bidders’ plans best met NASA’s needs, seemed technically ready to take on the contract and had sound management structures. These “three factors combined, when we looked at them” showed that Orbital and SpaceX “came out above”, Gerstenmaier said. SpaceX also recently put the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket into orbit and is currently assembling a larger rocket, Falcon 9, in Cape Canaveral.

The winners’ contracts will begin 1 January 2009, and will run until 31 December 2016; each contract could be worth up to $3.1 billion. For now NASA has contracted eight flights, valued at about $1.9 billion, from Orbital and 12 flights, valued at about $1.6 billion, from SpaceX.

It has also set production milestones and reviews so that the agency can keep tabs on the companies’ progress. Ultimately, the commercial carriers will supply the ISS with 40%–70% of its yearly cargo, mostly likely 70% of it by the early twenty-teens, Gerstenmaier said.

He noted that if the companies fail to provide, “we have no back up plan.” “[The] space station can fly itself,” Gerstenmaier said, but without delivery capabilities, space agencies will have to cut back on the experiments done and the size of the crew kept aboard the spacecraft.


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