SpaceX and Orbital win huge CRS contract from NASA

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation have been awarded the lucrative Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, with SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) earning 12 missions, and Orbital winning another eight missions. The details of the award – worth up to 3.5 billion dollars – equates to Orbital winning 54 percent of the funding. PlanetSpace Inc lose out on the award.

The CRS contract deals with the resupply needs of the International Space Station (ISS) after the shuttle retires. However, with a decision date coming within the next few months on extending shuttle to 2012, there remains the possibility that there could be a deferral of a quantity of CRS related launches until 2013. The contracts themselves would not be altered, should NASA decide to extend shuttle.

The award from NASA orders eight flights valued at about $1.9 billion from Orbital and 12 flights valued at about $1.6 billion from SpaceX.

Working on the premise of shuttle retirement in 2010, NASA needed to find a solution to launching up to 150,000 lbs of cargo to the ISS, without the hefty upmass of the shuttle.

The CRS contract – part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, with funding coming from NASA’s Space Act agreements – will cover at least 44,000 pounds of that requirement, joining with the cargo fleet of vehicles such as the European ATV, Japanese HTV and Russian Progress.

With Tuesday’s award, that fleet is being joined by two new launch systems from SpaceX, based in California, and Orbital Sciences Corp, based in Dulles, Va – well known for their Pegasus launch system and Minotaur family.

OSC’s Taurus II – a new medium class launch vehicle – is scheduled to carry out a COTS demonstration mission in the fourth quarter of 2010. Interestingly, the CRS award schedules the first launch to the ISS as a resupply element in October, 2011, followed up by the second launch in June, 2012. This may be related towards aligning with the projected extension of the shuttle, or funding timelines.

“CRS represents a dramatic departure from NASA’s traditional contracting practices that will be greatly beneficial to both the space agency and the nation’s industrial base,” said Dr. Antonio L. Elias, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, which oversees both the COTS and CRS projects.

The Orbital system will include a new advanced maneuvering spacecraft called Cygnus, along with several interchangeable modules for pressurized and unpressurized cargo. Thales Alenia Space teamed up with Orbital on the cargo modules for the Cygnus vehicle, while the pressurized carriers – based on the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules – will be built in Italy.

The Cygnus spacecraft to be launched aboard the Taurus II rocket will be capable of delivering up to 2,300 kg of cargo to the ISS and will be able to return 1,200 kg of cargo from the ISS to Earth.

“We are very appreciative of the trust NASA has placed with us to provide commercial cargo transportation services to and from the International Space Station, beginning with our demonstration flight scheduled in late 2010,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

“The CRS program will serve as a showcase for the types of commercial services U.S. space companies can offer NASA, allowing the space agency to devote a greater proportion of its resources for the challenges of human spaceflight, deep space exploration and scientific investigations of our planet and the universe in which we live.”

A “high-energy second stage” has also been mentioned as one option of utilizing a liquid second stage to increases the payload performance for the OSC system.

SpaceX won their part of the CRS contract via its Falcon 9 launch vehicle – with stages of the vehicle already arriving at SpaceX site at Complex 40, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, ahead of its debut flight in 2009.

Based on the Falcon 1 – which enjoyed its first successful flight on its fourth attempt this year – the Falcon 9 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. It uses the same engines, structural architecture (with a wider diameter), avionics and launch system.

Nine SpaceX Merlin engines power the Falcon 9 first stage with 125,000 lbs-f sea level thrust per engine for a total thrust on lift-off of just over 1.1 Million lbs-f. A single Merlin engine powers the Falcon 9 upper stage with an expansion ratio of 117:1 and a nominal burn time of 345 seconds.

Riding on the Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft – which comprises of a pressurized capsule and unpressurized trunk used for Earth to LEO transport of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo, and/or crew members.

The Dragon capsule is comprised of three main elements: the Nosecone, which protects the vessel and the docking adaptor during ascent; the Pressurized Section, which houses the crew and/or pressurized cargo; and the Service Section, which contains avionics, the RCS (Reaction Control System) thrusters, parachutes, and other support infrastructure.

In addition, an unpressurized trunk is included, which provides for the stowage of unpressurized cargo and will support Dragon’s solar arrays and thermal radiators.

“The SpaceX team is honored to have been selected by NASA as the winner of the Cargo Resupply Services contract,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, SpaceX.

“This is a tremendous responsibility, given the swiftly approaching retirement of the Space Shuttle and the significant future needs of the Space Station.  This also demonstrates the success of the NASA COTS program, which has opened a new era for NASA in US Commercial spaceflight.”

Losing out is PlanetSpace Inc, who partnered with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK.

They proposed cargo solutions via their Athena III, a three stage vehicle is based on a 2.5 segment Solid Rocket Booster, with an ATK Castor 120 second stage, topped off with an ATK Castor 30 third stage and Orbit Adjust Module (OAM).

The upgraded vehicle would provide an additional 1,560 lbs of payload capability for International Space Station (ISS) missions, carried via the Lockheed Martin and Boeing designed Orbital Transfer Vehicle spacecraft.

The fixed-price indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts will begin Jan. 1, 2009, and are effective through Dec. 31, 2016. The contracts each call for the delivery of a minimum of 20 metric tons of upmass cargo to the space station. The contracts also call for delivery of non-standard services in support of the cargo resupply, including analysis and special tasks as the government determines are necessary.

NASA has set production milestones and reviews on the contracts to monitor progress toward providing services. The maximum potential value of each contract is about $3.1 billion. Based on known requirements, the value of both contracts combined is projected at $3.5 billion.

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