WASHINGTON – Space Systems/Loral, a major manufacturer of large, commercial communications satellites, hopes to convince NASA to take a chance on its novel idea for delivering cargo to the international space station.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company was one of at least seven companies to submit proposals Nov. 21 for $175 million in Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration money that is back up for grabs following NASA's decision to withdraw support from Rocketplane Kistler's stalled K-1 reusable launcher program.
Rocketplane Kistler was one of two companies NASA selected in August 2006 to share roughly $500 million that agency is putting up to subsidize the development and demonstration of new cargo-carrying commercial space transportation systems. The other company picked last year, El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), has had its share of setbacks as it works toward its first successful orbital launch, but so far has managed to meet all of its negotiated COTS milestones and remain in NASA's good graces.
While SpaceX already is entitled to $278 million in NASA financial assistance if it continues to show progress toward a planned 2009 demonstration of the Dragon pressurized capsule and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, company president Elon Musk recently confirmed that SpaceX was one of the companies that submitted a new COTS proposal in November. He said SpaceX would use the available $175 million to accelerate development of Dragon's crewed capability, something NASA sorely needs with the space shuttle due to retire in 2010 and leave the United States dependent on Russia for sending its astronauts to the space station during the projected four or five year wait for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle to enter service.
Four of the other companies that submitted COTS proposals last month already have unfunded COTS agreements entitling them to periodic meetings with NASA to review what progress they have managed to make on their proposed cargo systems without public assistance. Three of those firms – Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev, Houston-based Spacehab and Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp. – also happened to be semi-finalists in last year's COTS competition, along with Seattle-based Andrews Space, which declined an unfunded COTS agreement but confirmed that it made a new proposal for the $175 million NASA intends to award in February. Jason Andrews, the firm's president, said Dec. 6 that Andrews proposal includes development of a new launcher, which he declined to describe.
Listed among such companies, Space Systems/Loral might seems an unlikely contender for NASA cargo-delivery dollars. But Chris Hoeber, the company's senior vice president for program management and systems engineering, said Space Systems/Loral's core strengths – building satellites and raising money – are a good fit for NASA's space station re-supply quandary.
Space System/Loral's proposed solution is essentially a made-in-America version of teammate Constellation Services International's LEO Express cargo system, which NASA passed over for COTS funding last year in part because of its heavy reliance on flight-proven Russian hardware. The very thing that made it technically achievable also made it politically unpalatable to a space agency trying to lessen its dependence on Russia.
Instead of using a Russian Progress supply spacecraft to retrieve a separately launched pressurized cargo vehicle and guide it back to the space station for unloading, the Space System/Loral-team would use the company's proven 1300-series satellite bus as a refuelable space tug that would remain in orbit for as long as 10 years. After docking with and escorting an essentially dumb cargo vessel to the station, the vehicle would also remove it from the station and allow it to be de-orbited over an ocean. Hoeber said Space Systems/Loral submitted a similar COTS bid with Constellation Services International last year that NASA rejected because the proposed system relied on development of a new water-launched rocket, dubbed Aquarius, that would give up reliability for low-cost operations – a sensible trade off, the company argued at the time, considering that most of the consumable cargo NASA needs to launch to the station can be readily and cheaply replaced.
Hoeber said Space System/Loral's current proposal leaves out development of a new launcher and instead would take advantage of existing rockets to loft the cargo containers and servicing spacecraft that would need to go up every several missions to refuel the tug.
This year's successful Orbital Express mission, which demonstrated the in-space transfer of fuel and hardware between two spacecraft, gives Hoeber confidence that Space System/Loral and teammate MacDonald Dettwiler Associates – the Canadian company that built Orbital Express' robotic arm – can handle the rendezvous and docking work the proposed system entails.
The refueling spacecraft, like the tug itself, would be based on the 1300 bus, albeit a stripped-down version that Hoeber said would be little more than propellant tanks. All the spacecraft smarts needed for the rendezvous, he said, would reside on the tug. "I think of it as a naked skeleton of our spacecraft tug using the technology demonstrated on Orbital Express," he said.
While Hoeber said it could one day be possible to use the same basic technology to refuel geostationary satellites, that day is not now. "I don't think it is economically feasible at the present time," he said. "But if we get 10 years experience doing this in [low-Earth orbit], you might be able to show at that point that it is just a no-brainer to take the concept to geo."
The first step, of course, is convincing NASA that the concept can work. As Space Systems/Loral and the other COTS contenders gear up for their presentations, they do so now with the knowledge that they can safely take a break for the Christmas and New Year's holiday season. NASA notified COTS contenders Dec. 3 via the COTS Web site that face-to-face discussions with bidders would occur no earlier than Jan. 7.
The same schedule update also revealed that the selection authority this time around is Doug Cooke, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, and that he will be advised on his selection by a proposal evaluation panel led by Alan Lindemoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office. The other panel members are Mark Emminger, Gerald Esquivel, Bruce Manners, Lee Pagel, Dennis Stone, and Valin Thom. All work for NASA.