The Orbital Sciences Cygnus leaves the International Space Station on October 22. Video source: NASA.
The Orbital Sciences Cygnus burned up on re-entry yesterday — as planned — bringing to an end its successful demonstration flight.
The mission gives the United States two 21st Century robotic spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station. The Cygnus burns up on re-entry to dispose of garbage and waste, but the SpaceX Dragon was designed to be reusable so it soft-lands in the ocean. The Dragon is the only robotic craft capable of returning samples, experiments, and parts needing repair.
The Cygnus return effectively ends the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which began in 2006. According to the NASA web site, the agency spent $800 million investing in these two spacecraft. Contrast that with the estimated cost of one Space Shuttle flight, which was roughly the same, and required a crew.
Although there were many efforts over the decades to commercialize spaceflight, the COTS program as we know it has its origins in President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Bush didn't mention it in his January 14, 2004 speech that would lead to the Shuttle's retirement, but the detailed VSE report sent to Congress included this statement:
For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs — such as heavy lift — are not met by commercial or military systems.
In June 2004, the Bush-appointed President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond issued a report that called for “breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”
NASA's Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office, or C3PO (yes, some in NASA still have a sense of humor) opened in November 2005.
Two companies were selected in the 2006 competition, SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler. After RpK failed to achieve its early milestones, the company was terminated from the program and replaced in 2008 by Orbital Sciences.
By the end of the Bush administration, the Vision's Constellation program had evolved into the Ares I intended to deliver astronauts to the ISS, and the Ares V which would take crews beyond Earth orbit. The vehicles being developed under C3PO would deliver cargo to the ISS.
But a 2009 review found that Ares I was billions over budget, years behind schedule, and lacked “a sound business case,” according to the Government Accountability Office. The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee found that Ares I wouldn't deliver people to the ISS until at least 2017, but paradoxically it would be funded by closing and destroying the ISS in 2015! NASA was building a rocket with nowhere to go. As for the Ares V, it was a paper exercise; the Committee found that it wouldn't fly until at least 2028, if ever.
And if the ISS was no longer going to exist, then COTS served no purpose either.
President Barack Obama decided to save the ISS by cancelling Constellation. The savings were used to extend ISS until 2020, to prime the pump on commercial cargo and to fund the commercial crew program which had gone unfunded under the prior administration.
August 2, 2008 ... Candidate Barack Obama promises to “close the gap” after the Shuttle's retirement during which the United States will rely on Russia for ISS access.
At an August 2008 campaign stop in Titusville, candidate Barack Obama pledged to “close the gap” during which the U.S. would rely on Russia for access to the ISS, and said he would speed “the development of the Shuttle's successor.” He didn't say what that successor would be; contrary to the popular rumor that circulates around the Space Coast, Obama never pledged to continue Constellation.
October 23, 2013 marks the first half of the fulfillment of that promise.
As for the commercial crew program, it's been set back one to three years by Congressional budget cuts. Although the Obama administration asked for roughly $800 million each of the last three federal fiscal years for commercial crew, Congress cut it by about $300 million to $400 million each year. This foolishness extended NASA's reliance on Roscosmos at least through 2017.
Despite that, two of the commercial crew competitors, SpaceX and Boeing, have stated in recent weeks that they hope to see their first crewed test flights in 2016. Sierra Nevada hopes to start remotely operated Dream Chaser drop tests at Edwards Air Force Base in the next few days.
So there's still hope for closing the gap, assuming Congress doesn't cut the commercial crew budget again.
In any case, commercial cargo has proven that commercial space works. The new financial model gave NASA access to two 21st Century spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to the ISS without risking a crew, and at a fraction of the cost.
It's been a long time since NASA had a success story that came in at a reasonable cost.
More importantly, commercial space has given birth to a new economy here in the U.S. that permanently opens space to the private sector.
None of this would have been possible if Constellation continued, destroying the ISS and leaving the U.S. without a permanent human presence in low Earth orbit. The U.S. would have betrayed its international partners, and left our economy without a microgravity research laboratory already delivering medical treatments to the market. On October 16, Zero Gravity Solutions announced a new product developed at the ISS to alter plant-based foods without genetic mutations.
The new economy is here. And it's thanks to commercial space.