Time Runs out for RpK; New COTS Competition Starts Immediately
Artist's concept of Rocketplane-Kistler's K-1 Orbital Vehicle.
Credit: NASA.

WASHINGTON – NASA said Oct. 18 it had pulled the plug on its agreement with Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) to help finance the company's effort to develop a commercial transportation service to and from the international space station.

NASA will take the $175 million previously committed to RpK under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and put it back out for competition in a matter of days.

"We spent the last year trying to work with RpK to give them every opportunity to succeed," said Alan Lindenmoyer, who oversees COTS as manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Based on its failure to meet its performance milestones, we've come to the conclusion that it is in NASA's best interest to discontinue our funded Space Act Agreement and reopen the competition for the remaining $175 million."

In a press conference at NASA headquarters here, Lindenmoyer said the agency plans to release a solicitation for a new full and open COTS competition Oct. 22. Companies interested in winning some or all of the money now available to invest in new COTS concepts will then have 30 days to submit proposals.

RpK of Oklahoma City was one of two companies picked by NASA in mid-2006 to share some $500 million in public funding to help them build and demonstrate competing vehicles capable of carrying cargo and potentially crews to the international space station. The other COTS winner was Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.

RpK struggled from the beginning to raise the $500 million in private capital it needed to complete its fully reusable K-1 rocket – in development for more than a decade – and launch it to the station. But it was not until well after RpK failed to meet a renegotiated May deadline for completing its financing and also missed a key early technical milestone that NASA moved toward terminating its agreement.

On Sept. 7, NASA sent RpK formal written notice that the company was in breach of its COTS agreement for failure to meet the May financing deadline and for not completing a promised critical design review of the K-1's pressurized cargo module on schedule. That notification set the clock ticking on the 30-day period NASA was required to give RpK before terminating the agreement.

Lindenmoyer said NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, Richard Gilbrech, called RpK the afternoon of Oct. 18 to tell them that time had run out.

Lindenmoyer said RpK was told it could continue to work with NASA on the K-1 through an unfunded COTS agreement similar to ones the agency has awarded to a half-dozen companies interested in selling resupply services to the international space station after the space shuttle retires in 2010.

Lindenmoyer said that RpK also is free to submit a new proposal when the new COTS solicitation is released.

NASA hopes to evaluate proposals and make its new selection or selections during the first quarter of 2008, Lindemoyer said.