Private Spaceflight Firm Takes Aims at NASA Cargo Flights
This artist's illustration depicts the automated PlanetSpace Modular Cargo Carrier supply ship as it is attached to the International Space Station using the outpost's robotic arm. Inset: An ATK booster launches the cargo ship spaceward.
Credit: Lockheed Martin/PlanetSpace/ATK.

A private spaceflight firm is developing a new unmanned spacecraft in hopes of delivering cargo for NASA missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Chicago-based company PlanetSpace, Inc. is working with veteran aerospace firms to build the Modular Cargo Carrier, an automated supply ship vying for funding under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

"We?re very comfortable and confident that NASA is going to have a low-cost, very reliable cargo and crew transport to the space station," PlanetSpace chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria told SPACE.com.

PlanetSpace teamed up with Lockheed Martin Space Systems to develop the orbital Modular Cargo Carrier, with experienced rocket builder Alliant Techsystems (ATK) on board to build the vehicle's booster. The firm, which is also developing a separate space tourism and suborbital transportation vehicle, is building on an unfunded Space Act agreement with NASA that set out the requirements for its COTS bid.

NASA's COTS program is aimed at spurring the development of commercial cargo and crew launch services as the agency prepares to retire its three aging space shuttles by September 2010.

While the space agency is developing its own shuttle successor, the capsule-based Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle to be built by Lockheed Martin, it is also considering purchasing commercial launch services during the gap between the orbiter fleet's retirement and the first operational Orion flights in 2014.

PlanetSpace and other private firms are vying for about $175 million in COTS seed money to develop and demonstrate their own cargo-hauling spacecraft by 2010.

"From what we looked at in our experience base, that's something that's very achievable," said Al Simpson, director of advanced programs for human spaceflight at Lockheed.

The Modular Cargo Carrier is currently designed to dock at the ISS using via a common berthing port used to attach station modules and visiting NASA cargo pods, Simpson said.

The available COTS funds were initially part of a $500 million NASA award to California's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler. When Rocketplane Kistler failed to meet key milestones earlier this year, NASA opted to re-compete that firm's allocation with a decision slated for February 2008.

In addition to PlanetSpace, the Houston-based firm SPACEHAB also announced intentions this week to compete for the COTS award using its ARCTUS spacecraft, which is currently envisioned to launch atop the expendable Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets operated by the United Launch Alliance.

If PlanetSpace secures the COTS funds, the firm plans to launch its first Modular Cargo Carrier demonstration flight from an established pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., by the end of 2010, though the company will retain its previous plans to launch homegrown spacecraft from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.

Kathuria said the Modular Cargo Carrier is being developed separately from PlanetSpace's planned Silver Dart spacecraft, a reusable space plane based on the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory-7 (FDL-7) that is designed to fly cargo or up to eight astronauts through suborbital space for joy rides or point-to-point transportation on Earth.

"We're continuing down that development very strongly in terms of developing the FDL-7 for what we call cargo express or space tourism," Kathuria said. "That's the commercial part of our business."