Friday, November 8, 2013

Commercial Cargo Victory Lap

The Orbital Sciences Cygnus berthed last month at the International Space Station. Image source: Orbital Sciences.

It'll be a busy week for NewSpace in the upcoming days as media events will hail further successes in the Obama administration's strategy to open low Earth orbit to the private sector.

NASA issued a press release today announcing a media event scheduled for Wednesday November 13 to note the successful conclusion of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will discuss the success of the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative during a televised news briefing at 11:30 a.m. EST Wednesday, Nov. 13.

Through COTS, NASA's partners Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp., developed new U.S. rockets and spacecraft, launched from U.S. soil, capable of transporting cargo to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

A successful Orbital Sciences demonstration mission to the space station was completed in October, signifying the end of COTS development. SpaceX made its first trip to the space station in May 2012 and completed its COTS partnership with NASA the same year. The agency now contracts space station cargo resupply missions with both companies.

As I wrote on October 24, it was the Bush administration that conceived the COTS program but it was the Obama administration that gave it purpose and priority. Candidate Barack Obama during an August 2008 speech in Titusville promised to close the gap in which NASA was unable to service the ISS. With two robotic vehicles now capable of ISS deliveries — including the only one (SpaceX) capable of returning experiments and equipment — it took only a little over two years to end the reliance on other nations' cargo delivery ships.

As for commercial crew, all three participants are on schedule. SpaceX hopes to perform uncrewed Dragon abort tests in 2014. Boeing hopes to occupy its Kennedy Space Center hangar by spring 2014 where it will assemble CST-100 capsules. Sierra Nevada performed its first remotely operated Dream Chaser drop test on October 26; although the flight went well, an interim landing gear failed to deploy, causing reparable damage.

The only threat to commercial crew would seem to be Congress, which has cut the program's budget by about 40% over the last three years from what the Obama administration requested to close the gap. Congress has still not adopted a Fiscal Year 2014 budget, which means they have not reconciled the House's plan to cut commercial crew again with the Senate's plan to increase commercial crew funding.

Wednesday's presser will follow Tuesday's previously announced NASA/Bigelow Aerospace media event which could announce the next logical step, commercial space beyond Earth orbit.

Next week promises to be a big week for NewSpace.

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