SpaceX, Rocketplane Kistler Win NASA COTS Competition
An artist's concept of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle and Dragon crew and cargo capsules.
Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON -- NASA announced Friday that it has picked El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Rocketplane Kistler of Oklahoma City to share $500 million the U.S. space agency intends to spend through 2010 to stimulate the development of new commercial delivery services for the International Space Station.

NASA made the awards under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program. SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler beat out four other finalists for the awards: Seattle-based Andrews Space; Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev; Houston-based SpaceHab; and Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp.

The larger of the two COTS awards went to SpaceX, which will receive $278 million in NASA seed money to help fund the development and flight demonstration of Dragon, a ballistic capsule launch atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket currently in development.

Rocketplane Kistler, meanwhile, would receive $207 million to help complete the K-1 reusable rocket and develop a cargo module that, like Dragon, could later be modified to carry astronauts to the space station.

"Getting to and from space is difficult," Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, said Friday in making the announcement. "Doing it safely, reliably, and cost effectively is even more difficult and that's what we are asking our partners to do."

Horowitz said both SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler are expected to conduct three flight demonstrations before 2010 to prove that they have what it takes to safely deliver pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the International Space Station. At that point, NASA intends to conduct a second open competition for service contracts to supply the space station.

That competition, Horowitz said, will be open to all comers, not just SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler.

With the space shuttle due to retire by late 2010, NASA would like to find U.S. alternatives to European, Japanese and Russian systems for delivering supplies to the space station. While the Crew Exploration Vehicle now in development is being designed to carry cargo and crew to the station, the new system may not be in service until 2014.

NASA officials have also said the agency would buy space station logistics services from the U.S. private sector if it can get the job done cheaper than the government-owned-and-operated Crew Exploration Vehicle.

"We are a customer that needs, after we retire the shuttle, to supply the International Space Station," Horowitz said. "If the commercial sector can do it safely and reliably and more cost effectively than it is in our best interest to buy that service."

Both SpaceX and Kistler are expected to combine the NASA money with private capital to complete development of their cargo delivery systems and conduct three flight demonstrations beginning as soon as 2008.

Horowitz declined to say how much money each of the companies intends to bring to the table. "They each have significant skin in the game," Horowitz said, deferring to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler for further details.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk with the goal of fielding a $6 million-per-launch rocket within two years. The Falcon 1 finally made its launch debut this past spring, but failed shortly after liftoff. The next Falcon 1 launch, a demonstration flight sponsored by U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is slated for late this year from the company's Omelek Island launch complex in the Pacific Ocean's Kwajalein Atoll.

Rocketplane Kistler was formed in late 2005 but the company's K-1 rocket has been in development well over a decade. The company is headquartered in Oklahoma City.

Rocketplane Kistler executives have said in recent interviews that they would conduct the first K-1 flights out of Woomera, Australia, but could eventually relocate operations to the United States, either in Nevada or Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

Earlier this summer, the firm also announced that Orbital Sciences Corporation would take over as the K-1's prime contractor in the event of a COTS win. The Dulles, Va.-based company builds satellites and small rockets and is one of NASA Administrator Mike Griffin's former employers.