When COTS did its final downselect to SpaceX and RpK, they had to turn down several oother promising approaches. However there were several articles today and yesterday that suggest that some of those other teams “aren’t quite dead yet”, and may yet play major roles in opening up commercial spaceflight.
Additional COTS Cargo Contract
The first article, in AvLeak, states that in addition to the COTS contracts, NASA is also trying to find some near-term (2009) cargo delivery for ISS. This is likely quite a bit before either RpK or SpaceX will have their stuff flying and proven out well enough to do the mission.
This is potentially really good news for say Constellation Services International. CSI proposed an unmanned cargo delivery system whereby cargo would be launched in a “cargo container” on whichever booster could be had for the cheapest, and then a Progress module that was already docked at the station would temporarily undock, rendezvous with the cargo container, and bring it back to the station. As I understand it, this wouldn’t provide for down-mass capabilities (though it would provide for disposal), but on the plus side, the idea is very low technical-risk. Which ironically enough may have been part of why it wasn’t selected.
The risk for CSI’s approach was very low, but the payoff if the risk succeeded probably wasn’t as high as with SpaceX or RpK. If CSI’s approach worked, the best you would get is moderately cheaper ISS cargo deliveries. But if either of the others pull their plans off, you’d have potentially much lower cost, domestic manned and unmanned launch capabilities. So while I can see CSI’s frustrations, I can also see why NASA picked SpaceX and RpK even though they were technically more risky.
Those very traits that cost CSI the original COTS contracts are probably what puts them in the lead for this additional flight. They’re by far the most likely to be able to run the cargo mission by 2009, and for this additional contract, that should weigh very heavily in their favor. I like the idea of containerized cargo and using tugs. It’s a good idea. I’d like to see a reusable purpose-built tug, but proving out the concept with existing hardware is a good first step. I really hope the CSI guys can pull it off. I’m friends with several of them (Anderman and Muncy), and also know several of their investors.
Other than CSI, the one other company that I think has a good shot at things is actually the LM (erm…ULA) guys. They’re teamed up with the ESA guys doing the ATV, and there’s a good chance they could pull off the mission within the timeframe appointed as well. Admittedly, even if CSI gets the contract, they’re likely going to fly the cargo container on an Atlas V (just makes the most sense when you’re constrained to existing US boosters), but I figured it was worth mentioning the fact that the LM guys do have their own solution if the CSI approach doesn’t work.
t/Space: Down, But Not Out
The other interesting piece of news (via Michael Belfiore) is that contrary their prior statements, t/Space isn’t throwing in the towel. When I first talked with Gary Hudson about this (over lunch back when I was living in Santa Clara), he had said that if they didn’t get government funding, they probably weren’t going to pursue this privately. It’s good to see that they changed their mind on that. I really liked some of the ideas they discussed in their CE&R approach, and think that they have a lot of potential–if they can get some funding.
Without government funding, they’re going to be hard pressed to field their launch scaled-up air-launched vehicle and scaled-up White Knight, even if AirLaunch pulls off their QuickReach succesfully. If t/Space wants to fly people and cargo soon, they might be better off teaming with the Atlas V team for launches. Get some actual in-space flight experience, and then go and raise money for their own booster. It might not make sense though. T/Space’s CXV design was only a 4-seater, and with that few seats, they’d be hard-pressed to get anywhere near the necessary per-seat price if they flew on Atlas V. But it’s an idea, and not a crazy one. I’m just glad they’re continuing to press on.
[Note: In case you’re wondering, the title of this post comes from a line in one of my favorite hymns.]
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