NASA Shows Patience as Private Spaceflight Firm Hunts Financing
A Rocketplane Kistler K-1 cargo vehicle bears down on the International Space Station in this artist's illustration.
Credit: Rocketplane Kistler.

WASHINGTON - Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) missed its end-of-July goal for completing financing of the K-1 reusable launcher, but the Oklahoma City-based company said it expects to present a "closure plan" to NASA by Aug. 3.

The manager of the NASA program subsidizing development of the K-1 said July 31 he is willing to give RpK more time to complete its financing.

"RpK is making good progress and we are being patient to give them every opportunity to succeed," Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Johnson Space Center-based Commercial Crew and Cargo program, said through a spokeswoman. "We have not given them a deadline, and as specified in the Space Act Agreement, are assessing the situation to determine if further efforts are in the best interest of both parties."

RpK was one of two companies NASA selected last August under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to split roughly $500 million in public money to help fund the development of new launchers capable of delivering cargo to the international space station. California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) was NASA's other COTS finalist.

NASA made RpK's $207 million COTS award contingent on meeting a series of technical and financial milestones that would culminate with a demonstration flight to the international space station. While NASA says RpK has performed well on its technical milestones, the company has struggled from the beginning to meet its financial milestones on time.

The first missed deadline was last September when Rocketplane Kistler requested and received a 30-day extension from NASA for completing the initial $40 million financing round.

A second round of financing amounting to $120 million was due at the end of February. But as that deadline approached, RpK successfully renegotiated its COTS agreement, convincing NASA to give it until the end of May to take advantage of a favorable investment climate and raise the entire $500 million in private financing it needs, not just the $120 million that was coming due.

When May came and went without RpK able to nail down its financing, the company's president, Randy Brinkley, told and NASA he would have the money by mid-July, later amending that unofficial deadline to the end of July.

Brinkley told after the close of business July 31 that he was still working to complete RpK's financing.

There is "still work in process on alignment of investor funding and also working on addressing near term bridge loan funding for subcontractors for August," Brinkley wrote in an e-mail. "Finishing up two day successful [preliminary design review] on the pressurized cargo module today. NASA is very much aware and supportive of efforts to close open financing issues. Hope to have closure plan by the end of this week and will share with NASA at that time."

Brinkley declined to provide more specifics on how close RpK is to completing its financing.

"While I would like to provide more detail for you it is not appropriate to do so at this time," he wrote in a follow up e-mail. "I will certainly do so as soon as I am in a position to do so."

To date, RpK has received only about $32 million of the $207 million it is entitled to under the COTS program if it successfully completes its promised demonstration flights.

RpK's competitors have been busy in recent weeks lobbying NASA on how it should spend the remaining $175 million should the U.S. space agency declare RpK in default on its COTS agreement, something that has not happened yet.

Some of the COTS finalists would like to see NASA using RpK's money to bring on one or more new competitors. But Space Exploration Technologies, the other company NASA selected last August to receive financial assistance with its space station re-supply system, has been urging NASA to give it RpK's remaining money to step up development of a crewed capability.

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