NASA Signs Support Agreements With Two Private Spaceflight Firms
An artist's illustration of t/Space's CXV spacecraft approaching the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: Mark Maxwell/Transformational Space.

NASA has agreed to help support a pair of private spaceflight companies as they develop competing designs for vehicles that could one day ferry astronauts and cargo into orbit.

The U.S. space agency signed Space Act agreements with Chicago-based PlanetSpace Inc. and Reston, Virginia's Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space), and will provide the two firms with requirements and specifications for crew and cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

Unlike NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) competition, the Space Act agreements include no funding support, though the space agency will recognize each firm's progress during vehicle development.

"It allows us to go ahead and meet specific milestones and goals to reach our orbital capabilities," PlanetSpace chairman Chirinjeev Kathurian told SPACE.com, adding that the NASA agreement allows the firm to focus its efforts.

PlanetSpace's planned orbital spacecraft, the Silver Dart, is derived from the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory-7 (FDL-7) experimental aircraft and designed to launch atop a NOVA booster based on Russia's Soyuz rocket [image]. The vehicle could be fitted with docking hardware, cargo modules or crew compartments based on their flight plan, PlanetSpace officials said, adding that the first demonstration launch is targeted for December 2009 [image].

"I think it will be probably be unmanned," Kathurian said of the first Silver Dart flight, adding that crewed launches could follow in 2010 and 2011.

t/Space, meanwhile, is designing an air-launched spacecraft system for both crew and cargo trips to the ISS [image]. The firm was one of six finalists for NASA's COTS competition to develop new launchers and spacecraft for ISS-bound flights before the space agency split that $500 million purse between private spaceflight firms Space Exploration Technologies and Rocketplane Kistler in August 2006 [image].

"It's important that investors and potential stakeholders see that NASA values t/Space as a potential supplier to the International Space Station," t/Space president David Gump told SPACE.com of the new agreement. "We expect to be able to do a crewed orbital flight by the close of 2010."

Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at the Johnson Space Center, said NASA's goal is to help facilitate access to low-Earth orbit. The new Space Act agreements address just two of the some 21 proposals NASA received from private firms during the COTS competition.

"There were some excellent ideas there," Lindenmoyer said in a telephone interview. "It's just that we didn't have enough money to fund all those studies."

NASA plans to hold a second open competition around 2010 to determine whether to choose service contracts with private firms to supply the ISS. The space agency's current transport system to the ISS - NASA's three remaining space shuttles - is slated for retirement in September 2010 once assembly of the space station is complete.

"I think it's really good to see that these companies are still in the game," Lindenmoyer said.