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Cygnus and Canadarm2
The Canadarm2 robotic arm on the ISS prepares to grapple Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft on September 29. That mission completed Orbital’s final COTS milestones, and closed out the overall COTS program (credit: NASA)

Life after COTS

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All good things, the saying goes, come to an end. At NASA, its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program has come to an end, as the two companies funded by NASA to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, “graduated” from the program by successfully demonstrating those systems. SpaceX has already flown two commercial cargo missions to the ISS since completing its COTS agreement, and Orbital is slated to fly its first post-COTS cargo mission to the ISS in December.

Bolden called the COTS event “a milestone moment in NASA’s commitment to transition the transportation of both cargo and crew” to the ISS to the commercial sector.

And COTS, for NASA, has been a good thing: for an agency investment of about $800 million, it supported the development of two new launch vehicles, Antares and Falcon 9, and two cargo spacecraft, Cygnus and Dragon. In addition to providing a critical capability at what both NASA and industry believes to be a much lower cost than a traditional government-led program, it’s created capabilities that can be used beyond its core cargo-carrying mission, as SpaceX has demonstrated with the commercial launch orders it has won for its Falcon 9.

Not surprisingly, NASA and industry were in celebratory moods at a valedictory press conference for the COTS program Wednesday in Washington. NASA administrator Charles Bolden called the event “a milestone moment in NASA’s commitment to transition the transportation of both cargo and crew to the International Space Station and future low Earth orbit destinations to commercial industry partners.”

So, what’s next for the COTS model—making use of milestone-based funded Space Act Agreements, as opposed to conventional cost-plus contracts—at NASA? As Bolden’s comment indicated, the program that has been following most closely in COTS’s footsteps has been NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. (COTS originally included the option, dubbed “Capability D”, for crew transportation, but NASA never exercised that option in its COTS agreements and started a new program when the agency decided to press on with crew capabilities; see “The COTS conundrum”, The Space Review, July 28, 2008.) The costs, and stakes, of carrying crew, though, are significantly higher than for cargo.

At the press conference, Bolden made another pitch for fully funding commercial crew, a concern that dates back to the program’s inception. “It’s now critically important to get full funding from Congress to keep us on track to begin these launches in 2017,” he said. “In many ways, the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program.”

For fiscal year 2014, NASA requested $821 million for commercial crew. Congress has yet to pass a budget for 2014: the fiscal year started October 1, and NASA and the rest of the federal government are operating under a continuing resolution, or stopgap funding bill, that funds NASA at 2013 levels through January 15. The House and Senate are far apart in what they would allocate to commercial crew, though. While the Senate would provide nearly full funding, at $775 million, the House is offering only $500 million.

A shortfall of funding has plagued commercial crew in previous years, as well. A report issued Wednesday by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that the program has received only 38 percent of its original budget requests in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, pushing back the beginning of service to 2017. “Generally speaking, we determined that each year’s budget decrement has resulted in an additional year of schedule delay,” the report concluded.

Commercial crew is also transitioning away from one of the hallmarks of the COTS program, the use of Space Act Agreements (SAAs) rather than traditional contracts. The next round of the program, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), will use conventional contracts, in part so that NASA can levy requirements on companies developing those systems that it cannot do under an SAA. The official request for proposals for CCtCap is on track to be released Tuesday, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier said at a briefing Sunday, with proposals due in late January.

The amount of funding NASA gets for the program in 2014 may determine how many companies win CCtCap contracts this summer. “Getting the systems as soon as possible and also having competition are both goals that NASA would like to maintain through this program,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, at Wednesday’s briefing. “I can’t say one is more important than the other.” He added they would wait to see the contents of the CCtCap proposals submitted in January. “Those proposals will really dictate how fast we go and how many we have.”

“This is not 1961, folks,” Bigelow said. Any NASA effort to go back to the Moon alone “under the usual cost metrics, is utterly, absolutely, and completely politically and financially impossible.”

The OIG report, though, concluded that funding shortfalls like those seen in previous years may force that early “downselect” to one company. “While NASA officials said they would prefer to continue to work with at least two companies until the transportation services contract, a lack of funding will likely require them to ‘down select’ to a single partner” for CCtCap, the report stated, adding that such a downselect, while saving money in the short term, may drive up costs in the long term based on experience with other major spaceflight programs.

Beyond commercial crew, NASA is thinking about how else it should use the COTS model. Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Cargo and Crew Program, which ran COTS, said in July NASA sent out a synopsis requesting ideas from industry on how else the COTS approach could be used by the space agency. “There was a great deal of great responses,” he said, including lunar exploration, launch systems, and communications. “There’s all kinds of potential out there where the model can be used.”

Separate from that request for ideas, Bigelow Aerospace has been working on a study on how the commercial sector can cooperate with NASA in the area of cislunar exploration. Its final report, delivered to NASA on Tuesday, endorsed the use of the COTS model to support human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit into cislunar space, including the surface of the Moon.

“America is facing a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions making the likelihood of increased funds for human space exploration highly unlikely,” states the company’s report. “Therefore, the only viable option for the U.S. to reach cislunar space is to leverage the efficiencies, innovations, and investments of commercial enterprises.”

The COTS approach, the Bigelow report argues, can allow NASA and the private sector to work together on exploration and commercialization of cislunar space, including the establishment of a lunar base, something NASA is not currently planning to develop for the foreseeable future. “Over the next ten years, it is very possible that if NASA can soon adopt some of the suggestions within this report in combination with current steps underway by NASA and the private commercial sector, a permanent, semi-commercial lunar base is achievable and for substantially less money than people would imagine.”

“This is not 1961, folks,” Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow said at a press conference about the report Tuesday in Washington. “Over the next decade, the cost for NASA, by itself, to venture back to the Moon for the purpose of establishing a permanent lunar base under the usual cost metrics, is utterly, absolutely, and completely politically and financially impossible.”

“It is ironic to me that you have people wanting to get politics out of space,” Garver said, “when, really, those are the very folks who are wanting NASA to fund things in the classical way, in the traditional cost-plus way. The best way to get the politics out of space is to open up markets and have there be other customers.”

Bigelow added that commercial industry couldn’t carry out such ambitions on their own right now without an anchor customer in the form of NASA, hence driving a partnership that he believes is best enabled by COTS. “If anything characterizes the current national optimism within the American private commercial space community, it is about cost, and how dramatically less expensive space travel and destinations can really be,” he said. “The key now is to see if NASA can pull these companies together through new space mission programs to increase the momentum that NASA and others have begun, and in return, those commercially-oriented companies will not only save NASA tremendous amounts of money, but will help to push forward space commerce and space exploration.”

The COTS approach was also endorsed by a former leading NASA official. “This week, NASA celebrated, rightly, and the community celebrated rightly, the COTS program,” said former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver at a space exploration panel Friday organized by Arizona State University at the National Press Club in Washington. “It should be able to be leveraged to include other subjects.”

She was more critical of those who sought to maintain something closer to the status quo at NASA. “We know that we have to reduce these costs, and have the ability to have customers beyond the US government,” she said. “It is ironic to me that you have people wanting to get politics out of space when, really, those are the very folks who are wanting NASA to fund things in the classical way, in the traditional cost-plus way. The best way to get the politics out of space is to open up markets and have there be other customers.”

Lindenmoyer and others at the COTS press conference this week didn’t disclose a timetable for when—or if—they would move to adopt the COTS approach to other agency initiatives, and NASA didn’t jump to endorse the Bigelow Aerospace report (which, beyond its call for the use of COTS in cislunar space, advocated for private lunar property rights.) For now, NASA seems satisfied with enjoying the success of COTS and working on making the commercial crew program work.

“This is American ingenuity as its best,” Lindenmoyer said of industry’s success with COTS. “Congratulations, well done, and thank you for making NASA a very proud partner.”