NASA has narrowed the field of private space companies vying for $175 million in public funds the U.S. space agency expects to award in early February for demonstration flights to the international space station, according to industry sources closely following the competition.
At least eight firms, and perhaps as many as 14, submitted proposals in late November under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS.
Established in 2006, COTS aims to spur development of privately operated space transportation systems capable of delivering cargo and eventually astronauts to the space station.
NASA selected two companies — Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and Rocketplane Kistler — in mid-2006 to share about $500 million. But NASA has since pulled the plug on Rocketplane Kistler's award for non-performance, freeing up the $175 million NASA intends to give to some other company next month.
According to multiple industry sources, NASA has notified four companies that they are finalists for the $175 million and should prepare to meet with COTS selection officials in Houston in the days ahead to defend their proposals.
Spacehab was one of the companies notified this week that it had made the cut, Eva DeCardenas, a spokeswoman for the Houston-based company, confirmed on Thursday.
The other companies, according to sources, are: Andrews Space of Seattle; Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va.; and PlanetSpace of Chicago.
NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey would not confirm that a downselect had taken place, because the agency has refrained from comment while the COTS competition remains under way.
Industry sources said NASA intends to announce its final selection on Feb. 7, the date by which the U.S. Government Accountability Office is required to rule on Rocketplane Kistler's challenge of NASA's use of Space Act Agreements for the COTS program. Rocketplane Kistler maintains that a traditional federal contract would be a better fit for COTS.
(The COTS money has been paid out according to a schedule of milestones for spacecraft development, and NASA paid Rocketplane Kistler $32 million for meeting early milestones before terminating its Space Act Agreement. SpaceX is in line to receive $278 million if it hits all its milestones through 2010. Another $15 million was set aside for NASA's administration costs.
(In addition to the $500 million NASA-funded COTS program, five companies have been working with NASA on cargo supply projects on an unfunded basis. Those companies include PlanetSpace and Spacehab, as well as SpaceDev, SpaceDev and Transformational Space, or t/Space.)
This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.