Competition for ISS cargo contract reduced to three

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The competition heats up: With NASA once again delaying its decision on the next contract round for supplying cargo to ISS — this time to January — Boeing also revealed that NASA had eliminated the company from the competition, leaving only SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada in the running for the two contracts.

Earlier I had said that if the decision had been up to me, which of course it isn’t, I would pick Orbital and Sierra Nevada, since SpaceX and Boeing already have contracts to ferry crews to ISS. If you add Orbital’s Cygnus and Sierra Nevada’s reusable Dream Chaser, you then have four different spacecraft designs capable of bring payloads into orbit, a robust amount of redundancy that can’t be beat. When I wrote that I also noted that I thought it wouldn’t happen because Boeing’s clout with Congress and NASA would make it a winner.

With Boeing now out of the picture, it seems to me that the reason NASA has delayed its final decision again is that it wants to see what happens with the return to flight launches of Dragon and Cygnus in the next three months. A SpaceX Dragon success will cement that company’s position in the manned contract area, while an Orbital ATK Cygnus succuss will make picking them for a second contract seem less risky. In addition, maybe NASA wants Sierra Nevada to fly another glide test of its Dream Chaser test vehicle, and is now giving it the time to do so.


  • Cotour

    If you can see if you can check out Sachsayhuman:

    I would be very interested in your impressions of the constructions there and in particular the massive zig zag walls. The scale, design and degree of precision is mind boggling to me.

  • Edward

    I am glad Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is still in the running. It provides a reusable vehicle that could compete with Space X’s Dragon for returning experiments and other cargo from the ISS (and other future space stations or habitats).

    The article says that Lockheed Martin’s Jupiter tug is not officially out of the running, although I have not regained hope that it will be chosen. I like the idea of a tug that is permanently stationed in orbit. Not only would a Jupiter tug save some launch weight (propulsion systems need not be launched with each cargo container), but it would provide for the development and validation of new technologies, such as in-orbit refueling.

    Since the return of some experiments and some cargo is desirable, and now that we no longer have the Space Shuttle to handle large quantities of such returning items,* I expect that either Sierra Nevada or Space X (or both) will be chosen for this round of supply missions.

    It seems to me that Dragon is not a shoo-in, as Dream Chaser could be selected instead, yet NASA would have the ability to fall back on Dragon in the case that problems arise with Dream Chaser’s schedule or operation. As with many satellite operators, NASA could be looking for this kind of flexibility in choices for launch providers. As Robert noted, above, redundancy is desirable.

    Another reason that I like Dream Chaser is that NASA seems to have shied away from the Space Shuttle style of spacecraft, preferring the one-use capsule for the Orion design. If Dream Chaser proves to be more cost effective than the Shuttle was, then reusable spacecraft may come back into vogue.

    * A small amount of returning items can be placed in a Soyuz capsule, but it has been desirable to return a greater amount than a Soyuz can accommodate.

  • Tom Billings

    ” If Dream Chaser proves to be more cost effective than the Shuttle was, then reusable spacecraft may come back into vogue. ”

    It is not a matter of ‘vogue’ or fashion. The Dragon is reusable, even when landing in water, …it’s just that NASA is refusing to treat it as such. The contrast with Orion would be too sharp. Dream Chaser will land on land, and NASA will have no excuse not to reuse it.

    It will be interesting to see what happens once both Dream Chaser and Dragon are landing on land. Dragon will be doing the vertical landings for which SpaceX are now beginning a testing program. Any comparisons to Orion once both commercial vehicles start landing as reusables on land will make Orion look very bad, financially. This will deeply displease the large Texas delegation in Congress. For NASA to admit that there is no reason to be developing Orion, which was supposedly started as a “backup” to the commercial vehicles, is simply not possible, politically, because it is headquartered at JSC, in Texas.

    The interesting cost comparisons for the future, however, will be between Dream Chaser and Dragon. Dream Chaser will be able to land anywhere in a wide re-entry corridor there is an adequate runway. Dragon will be able land anywhere at all in a narrower re-entry corridor. While each will find niche uses where the other is unsuitable, it will be the competition for uses where they compete that will tell us about how useful higher re-entry maneuverability really will be.

  • mivenho

    One thing for sure, the next Dragon launch is going to be a real nail-biter.

  • Edward

    Tom Billings wrote: “The Dragon is reusable, even when landing in water, …it’s just that NASA is refusing to treat it as such.”

    Correct. NASA refuses to reuse Dragon capsules because, for NASA, re-usability is not in style. They already rejected the Shuttle-like Dream Chaser design for the commercial manned program (I hope this is not a habit). They shied away from re-usability after the Shuttle, but SpaceX and Sierra Nevada have not. The philosophy with these two companies, as well as with several players in the launch industry, is: re-usability with short turnaround times is the key to low cost operation, just as these are key for airlines.

    The Shuttle’s turnaround time was months. Airlines can refly a passenger liner in about an hour. Peter Diamandis’ Ansari X-Prize set an early goal of two weeks, but the launch industry is shooting for a long term turnaround of a couple of days or less. Even XCOR believes that they can get multiple flights each day, like an airline (though they don’t have the same reentry temperatures and stresses as an orbital craft).

    I think that turnaround times will be a major factor in cost, and launch price is already a major factor in the competition for launch. Another major factor is schedule; whether a launcher is available when the payload needs to be delivered to space. A short turnaround will enable the reusable launch vehicle or orbital craft to be available in a timely manner.

    Except for the effect on turnaround time or the effect on timely delivery of returning material to the customer, I do not think that re-entry maneuverability will be a major factor in launch provider choice. In order to save a million dollars or so, a customer may be willing to wait an extra half day or so for his material to be flown to him.

    As for Orion, it is already pricey. Congress seems to consider this a good attribute.

    (Robert, ReCaptcha does not always work when I am replying to a comment, but it seems to work on all my “new” comments, like this one.)

  • DougSpace

    Does anyone else view $14 B as an obscene amount of money? Wasn’t the whole idea of developing commercial cargo with competition in order to develop low-cost transportation to LEO? I don’t know what the $14 B comes to per kg (I’d include the capsule) but I doubt that it’s particularly low.

  • Edward

    DougSpace wrote: “I don’t know what the $14 B comes to per kg (I’d include the capsule) but I doubt that it’s particularly low.”

    I’m not sure where you found the $14 billion number. Perhaps this includes not just the unmanned Commercial Resupply (CRS) but also the manned Commercial Crew Transportation (CCT) contracts, too.

    Comparing this to developing the Orion capsule, estimated at $12 billion, we can see that the commercial class of spacecraft develops four to six spacecraft (depending upon the upcoming CRS decision), for a similar price as just one. It seems to me that we are, relatively speaking, getting excellent value for our commercial space contract money.

    The CCT contracts will spend or have already spent about half of the number you have provided. That is two manned spacecraft for about half the price of Orion.

    The remaining $7 billion is a reasonable approximation for the expected cost for CRS. Orbital Sciences is expected to take 20,000 kg to ISS, and Space X is expected to take up a minimum of 20,000 kg, but is capable of up to twice that amount.

    Let us assume that Space X delivers 30,000 kg, the midway mark, Orbital delivers its part, and the next contract results in another 50,000 kg lifted. The answer to your question, $7 billion divided by 100,000 kg is $70,000 per kilogram. That seems like a lot. However, Space X is able to return cargo and experiments (up to 40,000 kg over the length of the current CRS1 contract). There is additional value in that capability.

    If I add in the weight of the spacecraft (which DougSpace allows), then there is another 60,000 kg for CRS1, and I will assume a similar amount for the upcoming CRS2. $7 billion divided by 220,000 kg is about $32,000 per kilogram.

    That seems better, but I remember that launch costs to Low Earth Orbit are on the order of magnitude of $10,000 per pound (20,000-ish Euros per kg). On the other hand, those are just for the launches, not for the development or the costs of the spacecraft (in this case, capsule and cargo). So maybe the COTS costs aren’t quite so bad after all.

    To make a proper comparison, we have to compare with the development and operational costs of the European ATV, Russian Progress, and Japanese HTV resupply ships.

    Five European ATVs lifted no more than 40,000 kg (this program has ended, there will be no more ATV resupply missions). Development was 1.35 billion Euros, about 2 billion US dollars. Each ATV cost $300 million to make. I don’t have a figure for launch costs, but Ariane launches costs about 150 million Euros (around $200 million). This comes to about $4.5 billion or $112,500 per kilogram.

    Huh. That is about fifty percent more per kg of cargo delivered than the COTS costs.

    Five Japanese HTVs have taken up to 30,000 kg to the ISS, and four more are planned, but I expect that if the ISS remains operational through 2024, then they will add another four or five missions. The Japanese are planning to eventually have a capsule capable of returning cargo, just as Dragon does. Although I did not dig deep, I did not find cost figures or estimates for HTV or for Progress.

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