NASA, COTS, and Russia

Earlier this week NASA announced that it had extended an existing deal with Roskosmos to provide crew and cargo services to the ISS. The deal runs through 2011, and includes 15 Soyuz seats, 5.1 metric tons of cargo on Progress flights, and 1.4 metric tons of cargo that will be flown in the Russian Docking Cargo Module in 2010.

NASA notes in the press release that, despite the fact that deal runs into 2011, it still plans to use COTS companies “to provide the bulk of cargo transportation needs from 2010 and beyond to the space station.” A few people I talked with this week at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs felt that NASA, at the very least, was sending mixed messages, if not expressing a more overt lack of confidence that such services will be available once the shuttle retires. It’s not clear to me that was NASA’s intent, but by extending the deal into 2011 (rather than terminating it in 2010, perhaps with options for 2011 or beyond) the agency opened the door to such interpretations.

15 comments to NASA, COTS, and Russia

  • richardb

    How about Nasa deciding to have a Plan B?
    Russia is cheap, its been reliable so why wouldn’t Nasa want some cushion in case the COTS teams fail, can’t execute on time or are too pricy?
    After all, the ISS is a national lab, its a 100 BILLION dollar expenditure. Better to have a plan B than explaining to Congress why we didn’t.

  • terminating it in 2010, perhaps with options for 2011 or beyond

    While I don’t necessarily disagree with this, diversity of supply should be the watchword. At first, NASA should offer contracts to anyone who can get there, and then later on they should differentiate by reliability and cost. The Soyuz is an existing capability and it is no less “commercial” than, say, Lockheed Martin’s Atlas.

    — Donald

  • anonymous

    The Soyuz purchase is necessary. Neither of the COTS performers is under contract yet to develop crew transport capabilities (requirements set “D” in the COTS procurement). That’s an option to be exercised only after the cargo transport capabilities (requirements sets “A”, “B”, and “C”) are demonstrated.

    The key question on the Progress and other cargo purchases is lead time. If the Ruskies need four years to put another Progress into the queue by 2011, then the purchase was a necessary risk mitigation measure should both COTS performers fail to meet their milestones. But if the Progress lead time is more like two years — or if the Ruskies have spare Progresses sitting around — then NASA is jumping the gun and should be roundly criticized for purchasing foreign services at the expense of U.S. commercial capabilities.

    Maybe someone with better insight on Ruskie space programs could give us a feel for Progress lead times and/or current queueing.

  • anonymous

    “The Soyuz… is no less “commercial” than, say, Lockheed Martin’s Atlas.”

    The way that NASA “purchases” a Soyuz or Progress flight is less commercial than how NASA (or anyone else) purchases an Atlas launch (or how gazillionaires purchases seats on Soyuz flights). The former are negotiated by diplomats under the international agreements that govern the ISS partnership — not a commercial exchange on an open market.

  • Anonymous, I don’t disagree that we should favor American suppliers, but I do believe that the Russian government buys the Soyuz from a semi-commercial firm, much like the US government buys Atlases from a company that could not exist without government contracts. True, the Russian government is acting as an agent for NASA, but other than that I see little effective difference. Both amount to state sponsored Socialism at its finest. . . .

    — Donald

  • Ryan


    I am on the hook to write a Graduate Research Project for my school and I am struggling to find a good, narrow enough topic that I will be able to find research information on.

    I am basically looking for a problem statement. If you guys have any, and I mean any, please reply to help me brainstorm. I’d like to tap into your knowledge base.

    My 1st topic was shot down by my instructor, mainly, I believe, because he knows nothing about the space industry and he seems to be one of those guys who is narrow-minded and thinks anything to do with space is too complex to do a research paper about. I may be wrong.

    Anyway, my original idea stemmed from the current development and production process NASA requests to be used in developing deep-space probes. NASA generally pushes for a mission specific design that drives specific and unsimilar probe designs versus developing a common architecture probe design that lays out a standardized manufacturing build for the probes so that more can be produced with an already developed design. Also, make the manufacturing process scaleable so to upgrade instruments, while driving the vendors to package the instruments into a predetermined slot/location on the probe. (The upgrades to the instruments need to be developed to the design of the probe, not the probe designed to the instrument.)
    The idea is to not re-create and re-develop the probe mission after mission, and keep the instruments on a development cycle of upgrades as opposed to un-structured and un-similar designs.
    Also, NASA and the major contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed etc, should work to get on the same level of agreement that allows the most productive, cost-effective production of probes possible.
    One example, if NASA eliminated individual contracts that involve ‘new program’ development costs, and replaced that concept with a longer-term production build concept the result should essentially produce a bigger bang for the space industries buck. More probes for the same price being paid for individual probes.
    If NASA approached these space integrators and said, look, we want a 10-20 or 30 year program that will develop as many probes as possible with that type of scalability and support, the Lockheed’s and Boeings would jump at it. Long term business is a good thing. The excess cost exists in the onesies and twosies design approach, with continual proposing, and contracts and ramp-up and basically the whole 9 yards just for one build.

    Imaging a car company building 1 car but still maintaining the same 4 year development process? That car would cost nearly a million dollars… now factor in new, specialized equipment that need shake & bake?

    That’s what NASA is doing with space probes.

  • Darren


    First, let me commend you for attempting such a challenging project. Your instructor was correct in thinking that your original topic would be difficult, but I don’t believe that it would have been unreasonable. Unfortunately, I am not the decision-maker. Can you please tell me what class this is for? I only need to know if it is more of a technical paper or a managerial-type paper. One possible topic that would satisfy either type of class, which has been studied to some extent, is to explore what would be necessary to land large objects on Mars (e.g. for a human landing). The Mars Science Lab rover is the largest object that we are capable of landing on Mars with current technology, but there are other options. I have heard people talk about how difficult it will be to design, build, and certify a human-rated landing system because you cannot adequately simulate all the conditions on Earth, which means that you have to have several test flights to Mars, and opportunities come around once every 26 months, and you would also need time in between flights to analyze results. Realistically, you are talking about 1 test flight every 52 months. It’s going to be a technology development program of huge proportions. Are there better ways to approach this problem? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to talk about the large investment to be made in this area BEFORE trying to build a lunar launch architecture that is very expensive and designed to eventually get us to Mars? Even if we build the Ares V, that is only one piece of a large technology program to land people on Mars. Many people like to believe that launch vehicles are the tall technology pole in the tent for a Mars missions. I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. I have never even heard anyone on this forum mention the problem of landing large structures on Mars. There is a lot to be analyzed on this topic. I am way off topic for this thread, so if you want to talk more, please post your e-mail address, and I will contact you. I would recommend generating a new, free account on yahoo or somewhere else for this purpose.

  • As to Foust’s original post, I agree this is just proper as others have stated, building space craft require a long lead time.

    As to Ryan’s request, I would suggest looking at NASA’s Rapid Catalog. This is also a goal I have heard or the Department of Defense’s Operational Responsive Space. I think at the core of your question is the difference between experimental spacecraft (one-offs) and operational spacecraft. Deep-space exploration is still very much experimental and as such have unique requirements. Also, NASA is in the business of building experimental s/c, not operational ones. To accomplish what you are asking for is not a technical problem as accomplishing what you ask is relatively easy. It is more a policy issue and one that has frequently been raised on this site and others in the community. The issue is one in which NASA just puts out requirements for the type of data is interested in and guarantees a marketplace for any who can provide that data (ie becomes an anchor customer). Then a business case can be made for commercial companies to accomplish exactly what you have asked for. You are beginning to see this already happen in the earth-remote sensing market and one would only need to extend that philosophy to space exploration.

  • Thomas Matula


    Actually your orginal idea of comparing costs between one-off experimental spacecraft versus production models would be a useful study. FOr comparision you might look in the comsat industry when satellites are build in production series as a comparison to how NASA does it.

    Another good example, if you are able to get the data, is to compare the cost of the Hubble space telescope to similar reconn satellites in built quantity for the DoD. The Congressional hearings on Hubble, when it had optical problens, and the Book “Hubble Wars” by Eric J. Chaisson would be a good starting point. This would also narrow it enough to satisfy your professor. And could be slanted towards a enegineering perspective or managerial one.

  • D. Messier

    Wow, the administration actually has a Plan B if COTS doesn’t work. That’s good. It shows they’re thinking for once. Unfortunately, Russia has grown more authoritarian during each year of Bush’s presidency. And relations have certainly deteriorated markedly during the last couple of years. We’re not in a state of Cold War, but if things continue on their current trajectory, who knows what will happen.

  • richardb

    Russia needs the US quite badly now. I wonder, does Nasa provide more funds to their space program than their own government?

    The US needs Russia just as badly now. By 2011, the needy relationship won’t be as strong for the US and will end entirely once CLV/COTS is flying.

    True enough about the sad state of affairs in Russia, but historically nothing new there as Russia has never in its history been anything but authoritarian except for a very brief time in the 90’s. Bush had nothing to do with a former KGB man “winning” the Kremlin post, nor with the traditional reach for dictatorship that occurred.

  • D. Messier

    Bush had nothing to do with a former KGB man “winning” the Kremlin post,

    Nobody said he did. There is an argument to be had about how effective Bush has been in trying to keep Putin and the straight and narrow. Or how much he could do. Probably an argument for another time and place.

    nor with the traditional reach for dictatorship that occurred.

    Not yet. Study your history though. The Weimar Republic slowly crumbled and increasingly was run by executive decree. Then Hitler came into power (elected, BTW), swept aside what was left of democracy, and decided to restore Germany power and expand its territory. The big difference here is that anyone who wanted to do that in Russia has a strong economy behind him. One can imagine someone trying to reconquer the old republics (as Emperor Justinian tried to retake the old Western Roman Empire). NATO vows to defend them and BOOM. World War III.

    At that point, ISS would be the least of anybody’s worries.

  • Wishicouldtellya

    ANONYMOUS said: The key question on the Progress and other cargo purchases is lead time. If the Ruskies need four years to put another Progress into the queue by 2011, then the purchase was a necessary risk mitigation measure should both COTS performers fail to meet their milestones. But if the Progress lead time is more like two years … then NASA is jumping the gun

    ANONYMOUS said: Maybe someone with better insight on Ruskie space programs could give us a feel for Progress lead times and/or current queueing.

    The standard Soyuz/Progress acquisition schedule is ~2 years.

    If NASA was making a much larger purchase, it is possible that RSC Energia (and its subs) would need to hire/train more workers to expand its assembly capability, but for this small of a purchase a two (2) year lead time should be sufficient.

    What is going on here is:

    A) The Russians are better negotiators than NASA, and

    B) The ISS program cares more about sending $$ to their Russian partners, to keep them happy, than they do about national policy goals (launching on U.S. launch vehicles and supporting/expanding U.S. commercial industry.)

    – Anon

  • […] a week and a half ago I noted here that some were concerned with NASA’s decision earlier this month to sign a contract with Roskosmos …, including both Progress cargo and Soyuz crew missions. Their concern was with mixed messages or a […]

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