NASA blasts off next stage of private resupply contracts

Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser will deliver cargo supplies to the International Space Station. (Ken Ulbrich/NASA)

By Madison Hopkins

NASA has taken the privatization of space innovation to new heights with the announcement of three new contracts for commercial resupply services.

Newcomer Sierra Nevada Corp, of Sparks, Nevada, will join the ranks of incumbents SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California,  and Orbital ATK, of Dulles, Virginia, to ferry cargo supplies to the International Space Center during the coming decade, NASA officials said in a news conference.

The three companies will split a total contract of no more than $14 billion and are guaranteed at least six cargo resupply missions each. While NASA officials did not announce the cost of the individual contracts, they insisted the total price tag will not come anywhere near that figure.

The contracts, which NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called “a big deal that will move the president’s vision further into the future,” also include funding for special tasks and studies at the International Space Station, also known as ISS.

“The second generation of commercial cargo services to low-Earth orbit begins today,” said Kirk Shireman, space station program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “By engaging American companies for cargo transportation, we can focus our attention on using this one-of-a-kind laboratory in the sky to continue advancing scientific knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.”

This second round of commercial resupply services, known as CRS-2 is a display of continued confidence in the companies which took part in CRS-1, after two large-scale disasters in as many years. Both Orbital ATK and SpaceX experienced rocket explosions during launches, destroying cargo meant for the ISS and causing massive damages.

“This second CRS contract award reinforces Orbital ATK’s role as a trusted partner to NASA with a proven cargo delivery and disposal service that continues to support the important work being performed aboard the ISS,” said Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group.

The addition of Sierra Nevada comes after the company also had a bumpy road to success. Its highly anticipated spacecraft, the Dream Chaser, was originally developed for manned missions, but failed to gain a coveted contract for commercial crew vehicles. After the setback, the company decided to repurpose the vehicles’ design from people to cargo.

The winged design of the spacecraft, described as a miniature version of the space shuttle, gives it the unique capability of landing on a runway after returning from a space mission. This means any time-sensitive experiments can be returned to Earth in a matter of hours, which is critical for certain experiments relating to the low-gravity biological impact of in space, Julie Robinson, ISS chief scientist, explained during the NASA press conference.

By contrast, SpaceX’s Dragon returns cargo from space by parachuting it into the ocean, and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus is designed to incinerate upon re-entry to the atmosphere.

SpaceX and Oribital ATK were first awarded resupply missions seven years ago, and have delivered a combined 35,000 pounds of cargo to the space station during that time, NASA said.

Awarding three contracts this time around will allow the agency and the space station to have a variety of options to deliver cargo, therefore maximizing opportunities and decreasing risks, according to NASA.

“Having more than one gives you some confidence that if something goes wrong with one vehicle, you won’t run out of supply capability,” said Steven Collicott, professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “It’s like having the brakes in your car and then the emergency brakes in your car.”

The contract awardees will begin work with NASA immediately. Launches will commence in 2019 and continue through 2025.

Sierra Nevada Corp.’s  Dream Chaser unmanned spacecraft will deliver cargo supplies to the International Space Station. (Ken Ulbrich/NASA)