Rocketplane Kistler press on despite COTS notice

by Chris Bergin and Braddock Gaskill

Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) was officially notified by NASA on Friday that they had failed to complete two COTS milestones. Sources from both NASA and RpK have confirmed that the letter does NOT represent a final decision by NASA to terminate the company’s COTS contract.

Meanwhile, RpK are pressing on with the a new configuration of their suborbital Rocketplane XP – to be unveiled at the X Prize Cup.

**The NASA memos on COTS latest, plus an impressive 50mb video of K-1 COTS Operations are available to download on L2 **




The letter is a formal pre-requisite to termination of NASA’s $207 million contract with RpK, with 30 days notice. However, it appears extremely unlikely that the company can raise the money required in time to cure the breach.

The letter, from Scott ‘Doc’ Horowitz, cited the failure of RpK to meet the required second financing round milestone #4 in May.  It also cited the failure to fully complete Milestone #5, a Critical Design Review of the Pressurized Cargo Module design due to an apparent lack of funding to complete the work. The company did complete a Preliminary Design Review of the module.

Rocketplane Kistler was awarded the COTS contract by NASA last year to develop their K-1 launch vehicle to resupply the ISS (International Space Station). The contract is worth $207 million, but requires RpK to raise approximately $500 million in private matching funds. The company successfully raised an initial $40 million of private financing last year.  However its fund raising milestones this year have continued to slip.

NASA confirmed in a June statement that ‘RpK did not meet the milestone that called for completion of a second round of private financing by the end of May,’ but that the agency was working with RpK to provide the company additional time.

While the COTS phase 1 program provides funding for the development and demonstration of an ISS resupply launch and cargo system, it does not guarantee that NASA will purchase future ISS resupply services from any of the COTS phase 1 winners. It also limits investment by foreign sources.

NASA may have partially shaken the confidence of potential COTS investors earlier this year by extending its Roscosmos contract in April. The contract modification pays $719 million for Russian ISS resupply and crew rotation services for three additional years through 2011 – after the COTS vehicles were originally hoped to take over at least the cargo resupply role. 

Recent fund-raising may also have been complicated by the release of the NASA COTS Phase II Request for Information (RFI) last month. The RFI was not expected until next year, and the early information request occurs when SpaceX and RpK are still in a relatively early stage of development. 

The RFI provides an opportunity for new competition to declare an interest in COTS 2 before the COTS 1 winners are, figuratively and literally, off the launch pad.

‘Technically we are moving forward, and we are having a much easier time with that,’ RpK’s Business Development Associate George French III told NASASpaceFlight on Friday.

‘The funding side is a lot harder, and is just taking a lot longer than we thought.  We were really close, but some things were just unagreeable.’

The Rocketplane Inc company itself was formed by a merger of Kistler Aerospace, who developed the reusable K-1 launch vehicle design, and Rocketplane Limited, who started out attempting to modify a rocket-powered Learjet for suborbital tourism flights.

That element of the company’s projects is going well, with RpK reporting continued strong progress on their XP suborbital tourism space plane, in parallel to the COTS K-1 effort.

‘The XP is doing very well, and at the X Prize Cup there will be some announcements,’ Rocketplane CEO George French Sr told NASASpaceFlight.  A new Rocketplane XP configuration will be unveiled at the Cup.

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