WASHINGTON -- With NASA just weeks away from announcing which companies it has selected to share in $500 million it intends to spend through 2010 fostering new space station crew and cargo delivery services, the head of one of the rejected bidders says the U.S. space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration effort is no longer focused on meeting that urgent need.
Charles Miller, president of Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Constellation Services International (CSI), said the COTS program now appears more concerned with longer-term goals such as encouraging the development of new launchers and stimulating commercial industries in low-Earth orbit.
"I think those are great goals they are pursuing through COTS but NASA still needs cargo delivery and CSI is still here offering near-term, low-risk cargo delivery on a U.S. launch vehicle," Miller said.
NASA is determined to retire the space shuttle by the end of 2010 but lacks the money to field the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the shuttle's replacement, much before 2014. Companies like CSI were eager to offer NASA a commercial alternative to relying on its European, Japanese, and Russian partners for delivering supplies to the International Space Station (CSI).
Last year, NASA announced it was prepared to put up $500 million to help private companies demonstrate the capability to deliver cargo and perhaps even crew to the ISS. CSI saw this as an opportunity to finally sell NASA on a re-supply concept the company had been nurturing for several years with a mix of private investment and NASA study money.
In all that time CSI has been unwilling to say much publicly about the specifics of their LEO Express concept beyond describing it as a "standardized cargo carrier" capable of launching on a variety of rockets and making heavy use of proven technology.
Miller told Space News that back in March CSI proposed to NASA the idead of using a pressurized Russian-built cargo container launched into orbit on an Atlas 5 rocket, supplied by teammate Lockheed Martin. Once in orbit, it would be retrieved by a tried-and-true Russian Progress supply ship and guided back to the ISS for unloading.
The beauty of CSI's proposal, Miller said, is that it solved the challenging "last mile" problem of space station delivery by using the proven Progress vehicle for approach and rendezvous with the station. And the cargo carrier itself, while requiring development, would make use of proven Russian space hardware designs.
NASA passed on CSI's proposal, notifying the company in June that it was not one of the six finalists still in contention for a COTS award.
Miller said NASA COTS officials told the company they found CSI's concept credible and innovative, but that the COTS program "wasn't all about ISS resupply."
"The customer wasn't buying what we had to sell," Miller said. "They were buying something different."
NASA spokeswoman Dolores Beasley said agency officials could not comment on any COTS matters while the competition remains underway.
NASA's COTS solicitation, released in January, talks about demonstrating space station cargo delivery, but it also highlights several less concrete goals such as "stimulat[ing] commercial enterprises in space", fostering "reliable cost effective access to low-Earth orbit" and "creat[ing] a market environment in which commercial space transportation services are available to Government and private sector customers."
Miller said he believes the COTS program has changed from "something whose fundamental purpose was [ISS] cargo delivery" to "more of a U.S. industry and technology development program." Because of that, Miller said, the COTS program "will be satisfied and probably declare success if they get some new breakthrough technology, like a new launch vehicle, even if it never delivers cargo to the [station]."
George Baker, a former NASA official who served as a paid advisor to CSI while they were writing their COTS proposal, said NASA's rejection of the company has caused him to wonder just how committed the agency is to solving its re-supply dilemma. Prior to his retirement from NASA in December, Baker was closely involved in the agency's efforts to evaluate alternatives to the space shuttle for re-supplying the space station.
"When [CSI] got de-selected it raised some questions in my mind about how serious [NASA] was about having this type of [station re-supply] capability in the near term," Baker said. "Any fully U.S. system is going to have to be a clean sheet system and that means it will take at least five years to develop and here we are sitting in the middle of 2006 and the COTS process is not even started."
An aerospace consultant, who asked not to be identified by name, said that while CSI's proposal may entail minimal technical risk, the company's reliance on Russian technology is a liability given NASA's interest in fostering domestic solutions to it station re-supply need.
"CSI might be the only one with a proven solution," the consultant said, "Unfortunately it is not an optimized solution for NASA."
Miller agreed that CSI's reliance on Russian technology probably hurt the company's chances with NASA considering, he said, that the agency seems less interested in solving its looming space station resupply problem than fostering new U.S. capabilities.
"If you look at our proposal, the fact that we use Russian technology, we don't scratch that itch very well," Miller said. "If this was just about [international space station] cargo delivery and the need for service. We believe we would be it."
Miller said he has no plans to fold CSI. He said he plans to keep the company going by in hopes that NASA eventually realizes that its foremost need is a viable, near-term solution to its space station cargo quandary.
"Our plan is to be there to offer them [ISS] cargo delivery a couple years from now," Miller said.