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Competition heats up for space station contract

Three U.S. firms are preparing to submit final bids for a pair of NASA space station cargo services contract worth up to $3.1 billion through 2015.
Image: PlanetSpace Modular Cargo Carrier
This artist's illustration depicts the automated PlanetSpace Modular Cargo Carrier supply ship as it is attached to the International Space Station using the outpost's robotic arm. Inset: An ATK booster launches the cargo ship spaceward.
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Three U.S. firms are preparing to submit final bids for a pair of NASA space station cargo services contract worth up to $3.1 billion through 2015.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., have been honing their rival offers with the aid of $500 million in demonstration money NASA awarded under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

Also in the hunt for the two contracts NASA intends to award Dec. 23 isChicago-based PlanetSpace, a commercial space startup that has built a team around the biggest names in the aerospace business.

PlanetSpace announced on Wednesday that it added the Boeing Co. to a team lineup that already included Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems.

The day before, the PlanetSpace met with NASA officials in Houston to present and defend their proposal for meeting NASA's cargo delivery needs for the international space station. Final offers for the Commercial Resupply Services contract are due Nov. 7.

PlanetSpace is the only one of the three teams that submitted proposals back in June to develop their resupply system without the aid of NASA COTS funding. However, PlanetSpace has been meeting with NASA officials periodically to review progress on its system under an unfunded COTS agreement signed in early 2007.

SpaceX is entitled to receive up to $278 million from NASA for meeting progress milestones spelled out in a 2006 COTS award. Orbital Sciences' 2007 COTS award is worth up to $171 million. Both companies are required to show steady progress towards demonstration flights of their respective systems.

No guarantees
NASA has said since the inception of the COTS program that winning demonstration funding was no guarantee of landing a cargo launch services contract. NASA also made clear from the get-go that the eventual contract competition would be open to any U.S. firm.

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Under the Commercial Resupply Services solicitation issued earlier this year, NASA said it was looking for each selected team to deliver a minimum of 20 metric tons to the space station over the seven-year life of the contract and bring back a minimum of three metric tons of materials over the same time period. No minimum dollar value was specified for the contract, but PlanetSpace Chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria said NASA has spelled out a maximum contract value of $3.1 billion.

Al Simpson, acting director of advanced programs, human space flight at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said meeting NASA's minimum order with the PlanetSpace system would entail 10 to 12 launches over the life of the contract.

Lockheed's role on the team includes working with Boeing to develop, produce and operate modular Orbital Transfer Vehicles that would serve as cargo carriers to the international space station.

The cargo vehicle would launch atop the Athena 3 rocket that Alliant Techsystems is building largely from heritage hardware. The first stage is a 2.5-segment version of the four-segment solid rocket boosters ATK builds for NASA's space shuttle fleet. The second stage is the ATK Castor 120 engine used on Athena 1, Athena 2 and Orbital's Taurus 1 rockets. PlanetSpace is the overall prime contractor and would manage the Commercial Resupply Services contract.

Cargo launches in 2011?
PlanetSpace team officials said Boeing brings its expertise as the international space station's prime contractor to an already well-rounded team.

"A very strong team member has just joined us," Simpson said. "We have been at this for quite a while now and have, I think, a very valid offer to address NASA's needs for cargo re-supply and give them the assurance that somebody can actually bring cargo to the station."

Simpson said PlanetSpace could be ready to conduct cargo launches in 2011.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences continue to forge ahead on separate cargo delivery demonstration flights planned for late 2009 and 2010, respectively.

NASA, meanwhile, issued a notice Oct. 15 that it intends to buy regular crew transportation and rescue services from Russia through June 2016 under a sole source contract currently under negotiation. The notice, issued by NASA's Johnson Space Center, indicates the U.S. space agency is negotiating solely for Soyuz flights and related services, not for cargo deliveries aboard the unmanned Russian Progress ship.

NASA officials have pledged to leave Progress out of the new deal to demonstrate its commitment to buying resupply services from the U.S. private sector.