Space Systems/Loral Proposes Bus for NASA's Cargo Needs

WASHINGTON – Space Systems/Loral, a major manufacturer oflarge, commercial communications satellites, hopes to convince NASA to take achance on its novel idea for delivering cargo to the international spacestation.

The Palo Alto,Calif.-based company was one of at least seven companies to submit proposalsNov. 21 for $175 million in Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)demonstration money that is back up for grabs following NASA's decision towithdraw support from Rocketplane Kistler'sstalled K-1 reusable launcher program.

Rocketplane Kistler wasone of two companies NASA selected in August 2006 to share roughly $500 millionthat agency is putting up to subsidize the development and demonstration of newcargo-carrying commercial space transportation systems. The other companypicked last year, El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies(SpaceX), has had its share of setbacks as it works toward its first successfulorbital launch, but so far has managed to meet all of its negotiated COTSmilestones and remain in NASA's good graces.

While SpaceX already isentitled to $278 million in NASA financial assistance if it continues to showprogress toward a planned 2009 demonstration of the Dragon pressurized capsuleand its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, company president Elon Musk recently confirmedthat SpaceX was one of the companies that submitted a new COTS proposal inNovember. He said SpaceX would use the available $175 million to acceleratedevelopment of Dragon's crewed capability, something NASA sorely needs with thespace shuttle due to retire in 2010 and leave the United States dependent onRussia for sending its astronauts to the space station during the projectedfour or five year wait for the OrionCrew Exploration Vehicle to enter service.

Four of the othercompanies that submitted COTS proposals last month already have unfunded COTSagreements entitling them to periodic meetings with NASA to review whatprogress they have managed to make on their proposed cargo systems withoutpublic assistance. Three of those firms – Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev,Houston-based Spacehab and Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp. –also happened to be semi-finalists in last year's COTS competition, along withSeattle-based Andrews Space, which declined an unfunded COTS agreement butconfirmed that it made a new proposal for the $175 million NASA intends toaward in February. Jason Andrews, the firm's president, said Dec. 6 thatAndrews proposal includes development of a new launcher, which he declined todescribe.

Listed among suchcompanies, Space Systems/Loral might seems an unlikely contender for NASAcargo-delivery dollars. But Chris Hoeber, the company's senior vice presidentfor program management and systems engineering, said Space Systems/Loral's corestrengths – building satellites and raising money – are a good fit for NASA'sspace station re-supply quandary.

Space System/Loral's proposedsolution is essentially a made-in-America version of teammate ConstellationServices International's LEO Express cargo system, which NASA passed over forCOTS funding last year in part because of its heavy reliance on flight-provenRussian hardware. The very thing that made it technically achievable also madeit politically unpalatable to a space agency trying to lessen its dependence on Russia.

Instead of using aRussian Progress supply spacecraft to retrieve a separately launchedpressurized cargo vehicle and guide it back to the space station for unloading,the Space System/Loral-team would use the company's proven 1300-seriessatellite bus as a refuelable space tug that would remain in orbit for as longas 10 years. After docking with and escorting an essentially dumb cargo vesselto the station, the vehicle would also remove it from the station and allow itto be de-orbited over an ocean. Hoeber said Space Systems/Loral submitted asimilar COTS bid with Constellation Services International last year that NASArejected because the proposed system relied on development of a newwater-launched rocket, dubbed Aquarius, that would give up reliability forlow-cost operations – a sensible trade off, the company argued at the time,considering that most of the consumable cargo NASA needs to launch to thestation can be readily and cheaply replaced.

Hoeber said SpaceSystem/Loral's current proposal leaves out development of a new launcher andinstead would take advantage of existing rockets to loft the cargo containersand servicing spacecraft that would need to go up every several missions torefuel the tug.

This year's successful OrbitalExpress mission, which demonstrated the in-space transfer of fuel andhardware between two spacecraft, gives Hoeber confidence that SpaceSystem/Loral and teammate MacDonald Dettwiler Associates – the Canadian companythat built Orbital Express' robotic arm – can handle the rendezvous and dockingwork the proposed system entails.

The refueling spacecraft,like the tug itself, would be based on the 1300 bus, albeit a stripped-downversion that Hoeber said would be little more than propellant tanks. All thespacecraft smarts needed for the rendezvous, he said, would reside on the tug. "Ithink of it as a naked skeleton of our spacecraft tug using the technologydemonstrated on Orbital Express," he said.

While Hoeber said itcould one day be possible to use the same basic technology to refuelgeostationary satellites, that day is not now. "I don't think it is economicallyfeasible at the present time," he said. "But if we get 10 yearsexperience doing this in [low-Earth orbit], you might be able to show at thatpoint that it is just a no-brainer to take the concept to geo."

The first step, ofcourse, is convincing NASA that the concept can work. As Space Systems/Loraland the other COTS contenders gear up for their presentations, they do so nowwith the knowledge that they can safely take a break for the Christmas and NewYear's holiday season. NASA notified COTS contenders Dec. 3 via the COTS Website that face-to-face discussions with bidders would occur no earlier thanJan. 7.

The same schedule updatealso revealed that the selection authority this time around is Doug Cooke, NASAdeputy associate administrator for exploration systems, and that he will beadvised on his selection by a proposal evaluation panel led by Alan Lindemoyer,manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office. The other panelmembers are Mark Emminger, Gerald Esquivel, Bruce Manners, Lee Pagel, DennisStone, and Valin Thom. All work for NASA.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.