Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada All Winners in CRS2 Awards

Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada All Winners in CRS2 Awards

NASA announced the winners of the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) awards today (Thursday, January 14).   All three companies still in the running for these CRS2 awards — Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX — came up winners.

At a press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi announced that each company won a minimum of six launches each, though no orders have been made for any of them yet.  The launches will take place between 2019 and 2024.

SpaceX and Orbital ATK are the two incumbents.   They won the first round of CRS awards and have been launching cargo missions to the ISS since 2012 and 2013 respectively.  SpaceX launches its Dragon cargo spacecraft on its Falcon 9 rockets.  Orbital ATK developed the Antares rocket to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Both suffered launch failures:  Orbital (before its merger with ATK) in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015. 

Orbital ATK returned the Cygnus spacecraft to service in December 2015, but using United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket rather than Antares.   Flights using Antares are expected to resume in May.  SpaceX’s Falcon 9 returned to flight in December sending seven ORBCOMM OG-2 communications satellites into low Earth orbit.  Two more Falcon 9 launches — including one on Sunday of the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA — are planned before the company attempts the next cargo launch to ISS (SpaceX CRS-8 or SpX-8).  That was scheduled for February, but rumors are that it will take place in March instead.

For this second round of CRS awards, three more companies joined the competition:  Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada.   Lockheed Martin and Boeing were dropped from the competition last year.  That left the two incumbents plus Sierra Nevada.  All three won awards today.

The three companies offer different solutions for ISS cargo services.  Orbital ATK and SpaceX use capsules reminiscent of Mercury,  Gemini and Apollo.   Orbital ATK’s Cygnus can be used only to take cargo to the ISS and to dispose of trash when it departs the ISS and burns up during reentry.  SpaceX’s Dragon can take cargo to the ISS as well as return it to Earth since it is designed to survive reentry and land in the ocean.  Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is a very different design.  It resembles a very small version of the space shuttle.   Like Dragon, it can take cargo to and from ISS and it lands on a runway as did the space shuttle.

NASA now has a range of options available depending on its needs — pressurized or unpressurized one-way or two-way cargo.  ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said today that it is too early to say how many of each version will be needed when, but the minimum number of flights guaranteed to each company through 2024 is six. 

A total of four U.S. commercial cargo missions to the ISS are needed
each year.  Those are in addition to cargo missions flown by Russia’s
Progress and Japan’s HTV spacecraft.  Shireman declined to reveal the value of the contracts awarded today.  He said only that the total amount available is $14 billion through 2024, but the current awards fall well short of that.   Orbital ATK said in a statement that the value of the six missions it was awarded today is $1.2-$1.5 billion.

SpaceX uses its own Falcon 9 for the Dragon missions.  Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  Both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada will launch from Cape Canaveral, FL.  

Orbital ATK’s Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.   The third operational launch, Orb-3, failed.   To ensure that it met its requirement to launch 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016, it contracted with ULA to launch two Cygnus capsules using ULA’s Atlas V while Antares is being outfitted with new engines.  The first ULA launch of a Cygnus capsule took place in December and another is planned in March.  Those launches are from Cape Canaveral.  Orbital ATK plans to resume Cygnus launches using the upgraded Antares from Wallops in May.  Its CRS2 proposal offered both variants — launches on Atlas V from Cape Canaveral or on Antares from Wallops.

NASA officials said today that this round of CRS awards reflects lessons learned from the first round.  Among the changes is insurance requirements for the companies to cover damage to government property during launch, reentry, or in proximity to or docking with the ISS.

Today’s announcement came months later than expected.   Originally the CRS2 awards were to be announced in June 2015.  That slipped to September and then November.  At that time, NASA gave January 30 as the expected award date, so in that sense, today’s announcement could be considered “early.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of its Space Subcommittee, commended the awards.  They said that the recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act demonstrated Congress’s support of the commercial space industry.

NASA’s efforts to facilitate the development of new cargo and crew systems to service the ISS through Public-Private Partnerships began under the George W. Bush Administration.  NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) or “commercial cargo” program in 2006 wherein both the government and the private sector invested in the development of the systems with the agreement that NASA would purchase a certain amount of services.   Using the same type of arrangement to develop systems capable of taking astronauts — “commercial crew” — to and from ISS was envisioned at that time, but was kick-started by the Obama Administration and made a centerpiece of NASA’s strategy for maintaining the ISS once the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

Today, SpaceX has contracts for both commercial cargo and commercial crew, with the first commercial crew launch expected around 2017.  It builds its own spacecraft (Dragon and Crew Dragon) and rockets (Falcon 9).

Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada have contracts for commercial cargo.  Orbital ATK can launch its Cygnus spacecraft either on its own Antares rockets or ULA’s Atlas V.  Sierra Nevada will launch Dream Chaser on ULA Atlas V rockets.

Boeing is the other company that has a commercial crew contract. Its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch on ULA’s Atlas V.  The first launch is expected around 2017.

Although Lockheed Martin does not have any of the commercial cargo or commercial crew contracts, it is building the Orion spacecraft under a traditional government contract with NASA to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) to the vicinity of the Moon and someday to Mars beginning in the early 2020s.

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