NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said the U.S. space agency will call for proposals this year from companies interested in delivering cargo to the international space station (ISS).
NASA announced last year that it intended to buy space station resupply services from the private sector but never got around to issuing a formal request for proposals. Griffin, who was sworn in as NASA administrator in April, has since transferred responsibility for managing the resupply procurement from the agency's Space Operations Mission Directorate to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, which was created last year to oversee the acquisition of the United States' next passenger-carrying spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle.
Speaking May 18 at the Space at the Crossroads conference here, Griffin said a request for proposals for space station cargo delivery would go out in late summer or early autumn.
NASA has not said how much money it plans to spend in the coming years on commercial space station resupply services. NASA's 2005 budget includes $98 million for the effort, a sum that would cover little more than study contracts.
The prospect of selling logistics services to NASA has attracted interest from established aerospace-industry players Boeing and Lockheed Martin and from much smaller companies, including Kirkland, Wash.-based Kistler Aerospace and Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Constellation Services Inc.
Griffin said he hopes NASA can buy resupply services commercially in the relatively near term from providers that have been lured into the market by the promise of NASA business.
"It is in our interest to sponsor commercial development in that area by providing the only market I have for the next few years, which is cargo delivery to the station," he said.
Griffin said NASA "can do commercial deals" by announcing the need for a service and then paying the providers who deliver.
"I am very serious about [space station] cargo," he said. "We are going to put out an unmistakably clear [request for proposals} that says 'if providers can deliver, we will buy.'"
Griffin said government will be "the provider of last resort" for routine services like cargo resupply.
"NASA exists to work at the frontier," he said. "Today the frontier should not be the delivery of 5 or 10 tons of cargo to the station."
Griffin also said NASA eventually would like to turn to the private sector for transporting astronauts into space.
"If transportation providers can develop a level of credibility and confidence in reliability and safety in their systems, we would follow our interest in buying cargo services with an interest in the purchase of crew services on a commercial basis," Griffin said. "But I am absolutely interested in buying seats to orbit instead of buying vehicles."
Before Griffin came on board, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate was planning to set aside a significant sum - several hundred million dollars or more - to fund a so-called non-traditional procurement in parallel to its primary Crew Exploration Vehicle development effort. The aim of the non-traditional procurement was to put additional competitive pressure on Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the two big prime contractors vying for a Crew Exploration Vehicle contract worth billions of dollars, while fostering development of a limited Earth-to-orbit crew transport system that could be ready to go before the shuttle retires in 2010.
Griffin has made eliminating the gap between retiring the shuttle and fielding a new human transport system his top priority after the shuttle's safe return to flight. But he hopes to do this by accelerating development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, in part by selecting the prime contractor for the program in early 2006 instead of late 2008 as previously planned.
Taking questions after his talk at the conference, Griffin repeated a point he had made the week before during a private meeting with contractor representatives: "I'm all for non-traditional approaches. I also would be all for a lot more money," he said. "I don't have a lot of money to be funding parallel developments. To be honest with you, I don't have any."
At least one company, Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space), has been urging NASA to hold a competition in parallel to the Crew Exploration Vehicle competition and award a fixed price contract to the team it thinks has the best chance of building a crew transport that would be ready to fly before the shuttle retires. T/Space says it can build such as system by late 2008 for $500 million or less.
Brett Alexander, the former White House space policy analyst who left government service earlier this year to become t/Space's vice president of government relations, said Griffin's pronouncement about parallel development efforts is not a showstopper for the infant company.
"We are actually encouraged that NASA and the new administrator are thinking about how to do non-traditional crew-to-orbit," Alexander said in an interview. "There are a lot of good ideas about how to do it. Mini-prime contract development efforts, pay on delivery --- these are all good ideas that have strengths and weaknesses. We are happy to be talking to NASA about what makes sense to meet NASA's needs."
T/Space has been pushing a NASA-funded development as the fastest and ultimately cheapest way to field a spacecraft that could carry astronauts not only to the space station but also to a Crew Exploration Vehicle optimized for travel between Earth orbit and the Moon. But Alexander said financing the vehicle privately has always been an option.
"The question is 'what's the best way for NASA to meet a NASA need,'" Alexander said. "If we do it with private financing, the eventual service price costs more and the program takes longer to complete, but we can do it."
The drawback of the private funding approach, Alexander said, is that it takes considerable time and energy to raise capital and the financial return demanded by investors would add significantly to what t/Space would have to charge NASA for flights.