The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dragon illustration
SpaceX is designing the Dragon spacecraft to carry both cargo and crew to the ISS; whether NASA will fund the crew option of its existing agreement with the company is an open question. (credit: SpaceX)

The COTS conundrum

NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program has emerged as one of the most interesting experiments not just in the tenure of administrator Mike Griffin, who kicked off the effort shortly after becoming administrator in 2005, but perhaps in the agency’s fifty-year history. Faced with a gap in access to the International Space Station (ISS) after the retirement of the shuttle inherent in the Vision for Space Exploration, the agency looked to the commercial sector to find ways to help fill that gap and to lessen reliance on the Russians and other international partners. Rather than a conventional procurement and development effort, though, NASA instead offered seed money and a promise of contracts for cargo and crew transportation services to the station—leaving it up to the companies to raise the rest of the money needed to develop the vehicles, while also allowing the companies to offer their services to other customers.

The results, three years in, lie somewhere between “mixed” and “too soon to tell”. In 2006 NASA awarded funded Space Act Agreements to two companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), to help them develop vehicles to service the station. SpaceX has made steady progress on its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 launcher, although its first COTS test flights have slipped from late 2008 until some time in 2009. NASA had to revoke RpK’s agreement last year, though, when the company failed to achieve financial milestones in its agreement. Orbital Sciences Corporation won an agreement for the remaining RpK money earlier this year and is working on its Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus 2 launcher, with plans for a late 2010 test flight. (Orbital, like SpaceX, is relying on internal funding rather than raising money on private markets.) Several other companies have unfunded Space Act Agreements that allow them to continue work on their concepts with regular interaction with, but no funding from, NASA.

The results of COTS, three years in, lie somewhere between “mixed” and “too soon to tell”.

Despite this progress, though, there are rumbling of discontent about COTS, both within the space industry and on Capitol Hill. While supportive of the steps NASA has taken to date with COTS, they believe that NASA has not gone far enough with the program. Of particular concern the current emphasis almost exclusively on cargo resupply of the ISS, rather than crew transportation. That focus, they argue, doesn't do enough to support the commercial space industry, including both vehicle developers and potential customers, and in the long run could turn COTS into little more than a typical government procurement.

The importance of Capability D

In the lexicon of COTS, “Capability D” (or simply “COTS D”) refers to the ability to transport crew to and from the ISS. (Capabilities A, B, and C identify the ability to take unpressurized cargo to the station and perform redestructive reentry, take pressurized internal cargo to the station and perform redestructive reentry, and return cargo to Earth; respectively.) The current NASA funded agreements do not include COTS D, although in the case of SpaceX its agreement does include an option—as yet unexercised and unfunded—for Capability D.

Industry advocates would like to see that change, and soon. “In my view, the most important thing that NASA could be doing with COTS is to enable the capability to take people into space by the private sector,” said Brett Alexander, president of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, an industry group (and also a senior advisor to Transformational Space LLC, a company that sought a funded COTS agreement in 2006), during a panel on COTS at the NewSpace 2008 conference in Crystal City, Virginia, on July 18. “That is what changes everything.”

The argument that Alexander and others use for funding COTS D is based on the customers of the services being provided. With cargo services alone there is effectively a single customer: NASA. Add human spaceflight to the mix, though, and other commercial customers emerge, from orbital space tourism to Bigelow Aerospace, which is planning a series of orbital habitats. Those customers could, in turn, stimulate additional demand for cargo services that wouldn’t exist without the capability of getting people into orbit as well.

“As long as government is the only market—and with COTS A through C, cargo to space station, I believe NASA and the space station is the only market for that—you don’t enable anything that goes beyond that, you don’t enable a sustainable capability,” Alexander said. “If NASA cancelled the space station, that industry and that capability would go away. Not true if we enable getting private people into space more affordably than you can with the Soyuz.”

He added that COTS D would also make it easier for companies planning to develop human spaceflight services to raise private funding. “In the private sector, there is no money available now for any private crew activity that does not have NASA’s blessing,” he said. “If NASA is already in the trade space, and is not doing anything about it, that kills everything else. Nothing will happen.”

COTS D is of particular interest to Bigelow, since the company is seeking ways to get crews to its planned habitats and has virtually no options now beyond Soyuz. “The issue of crew transportation keeps me up more often than my four-month-old son,” quipped Mike Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace.

“In my view, the most important thing that NASA could be doing with COTS is to enable the capability to take people into space by the private sector,” said Brett Alexander.

Gold said he was particularly worried in recent months as NASA shifted the emphasis of COTS even more to cargo-only services, citing the selection of Orbital for the latest funded COTS agreement as a case in point. “They weren’t even proposing a crewed system, nor could their system be evolved, really, into a crew-carrying system. That we found disturbing,” he said. “That isn’t to say that cargo isn’t a concern—it is—but crew transportation is certainly an area where there is a dearth of capability.”

Without the additional business that crew transportation could provide, Alexander warned, COTS could devolve into an ordinary government program. “If you end up with cargo but not crew capability, what have you achieved? You have achieved something that is useful to NASA, that replaces outsourcing to other folks, like the Europeans and the Russians, for cargo transport, but you do not enable any market, any capabilities that other people are going to fund for you,” he said. “So it morphs over time into a government program.”

COTS vs. Constellation?

Funding COTS D has some support in Congress, not just because of its ability to enable new markets but to also deal with the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of Ares 1 and Orion, an interregnum that appears to have little hope of being reduced even with additional funding, such as that authorized in legislation currently working its way through Congress. “I’m less and less inclined to think that’s the right thing to do, because the closest we could close that gap in 2014, and that doesn’t do much for station,” said Jeff Bingham, a staffer on the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. “So COTS D becomes the next candidate on the table.”

The Senate version of the NASA authorization legislation currently under consideration, S. 3270, does contain language specifically directing NASA to move ahead with a version of COTS D. It calls on NASA to enter into Space Act Agreements with at least two teams to develop commercial crew capabilities that would be available by the end of fiscal year 2011 (“or as soon thereafter as is practicable”), and authorizes $150 million in fiscal year 2009 for starting that effort. Similar language was included in the version of the bill that the House passed in June.

However, while the legislation authorizes NASA to spend money on COTS D, actually finding that money is a different matter, since appropriations are handed separately and are not obligated to fund programs that have been authorized. Complicating matters further is the belief that an appropriations bill for 2009 will not be completed until after the presidential election—if one is done at all, versus a yearlong continuing resolution. “Congress is reluctant to give money that’s not asked for” by the administration, Bingham said. “It has to be seen as a priority.”

“Where do you find the money? Anywhere,” said Alexander. “You’ve got to make it a priority and you’ve got to find it.” How much money you provide for COTS D is a bigger question, he said, but noted it does not have to come in one lump sum. “You have to do something, and you have to do something with money, now.”

“I don’t think everyone buys off on the Moon mission yet,” Gold said. “The fear, politically, is that if you did have a system that could get us up and down from LEO efficiently, there are those in Congress who would give up on the Moon.”

The political support, or lack thereof, or COTS D raises a deeper issue: is commercial orbital human spaceflight seen as a potential competitor to Constellation? “Because of the limited dollars that NASA is allowed to consider they have on the table, anything human spaceflight-related is competitive with Ares/Orion,” said Bingham. “There is a perception that there is a competition, and there shouldn’t be.”

“In an ideal world, no, there is no reason for the two to compete,” said Gold. “Ares/Orion is a system to get to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. That should not interfere with a private sector LEO solution. In the real world, politically? Yeah.”

He added that opposition to COTS may have its roots in concerns about the overall Vision for Space Exploration. “I don’t think everyone buys off on the Moon mission yet,” Gold said. “The fear, politically, is that if you did have a system that could get us up and down from LEO efficiently, there are those in Congress who would give up on the Moon. And that’s really what’s at play here.”

Proponents of Capability D like Alexander believe that it is not a threat to the Vision, but instead an essential element of it. “Commercial crew is the only thing that will make the Vision ultimately sustainable and affordable,” he said. “It’s key to exploration and to continuing activity in low Earth orbit as well. It changes everything.”