NASA intends to spend around $500 million over the next several years subsidizing development of commercial services for delivering cargo and possibly people to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA hopes the investment will allow one or more firms to demonstrate by 2010--if not sooner--that they are capable of delivering cargo and perhaps even crew to the space station. NASA would then competitively award flexible service contracts to the qualified firms to provide the services.

Several U.S. entrepreneurial firms have expressed interest in the NASA-funded flight demonstration program, which was unveiled formally here Nov. 1 during an Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Industry Day. Those firms include Constellation Services International of Woodland Hills, Calf.; SpaceDev of Poway, Calif.; Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.; and t/Space of Reston, Va. Also taking a look at the program are more traditional NASA contractors including Houston-based Spacehab, Chicago-based Boeing, Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin and Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman.

Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's Commercial Crew/Cargo project manager, said the agency intends to sign agreements with one or more firms by May to conduct a demonstration effort culminating in a flight to the international space station. The demonstration program is meant to stimulate entrepreneurial efforts to provide innovative, low-cost access to space and build NASA's confidence that it can buy commercial services to ferry cargo and perhaps even crew to the space station after the space shuttle has retired. The commercial services would supplement NASA's own planned shuttle replacement system.

NASA is asking interested firms to submit proposals in January for Earth-to-orbit flight demonstrations of vehicles with the potential to deliver cargo to the space station. NASA is interested in the capability to deliver both pressurized and unpressurized cargo loads. NASA also is interested both in vehicles that would dispose of station refuse by, for example, burning up in the atmosphere and those which would deliver cargo back to Earth intact.

NASA is open to proposals geared primarily toward delivering people to the space station, but would require firms offering such services to first demonstrate pressurized cargo delivery and return as an "interim milestone," Lindenmoyer said.

Lindenmoyer would not say how much money NASA is putting into the effort, but NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the House Science Committee during a Nov. 3 hearing that the agency is prepared to spend $500 million in the years ahead. Industry sources closely following the program said most of that money is expected to be made available during the first couple years of the program.

While NASA says it fully intends to buy space station resupply services from qualified providers should they emerge, there is no ironclad guarantee that it will. Even if NASA awards flexible service contracts for commercial orbital transportation services, Lindenmoyer said, NASA's space station resupply needs in any given year could be anywhere from zero to 10 metric tons of cargo.

NASA is designing its shuttle replacement, dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle, to be capable of delivering astronauts and limited amounts of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the space station.

Griffin, however, has said on numerous occasions that NASA's preference would be to buy space station services from commercial providers and not use the Crew Exploration Vehicle any more than it must.

NASA will solicit proposals for the demonstrations this year. A draft announcement is due out Nov. 22, Lindenmoyer said, with a final announcement spelling out the agency's requirements in detail to be released Dec. 20. Deadline for proposals is Jan. 27 with selections to be made by May.

Lindenmoyer said NASA intends to enter into Space Act Agreements rather than typical government contracts with selected firms and is open both to cost-sharing proposals and fully government-funded demonstration efforts. Space Act Agreements give the government more flexibility than straight contracts or grants and allow the firms to retain intellectual property rights to their designs.

Bidders are free to offer non-U.S. hardware and systems, but Lindenmoyer cautioned that any future service contracts would be subject to U.S. laws and policies that might limit foreign content and which prohibit NASA from paying for launches aboard non-U.S. rockets.