Alleviating COTS concerns

Last month’s NASA-Roskosmos contract for ISS resupply attracted criticism from some corners of the entrepreneurial space industry, concerned that the contract might be seen as undermining the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort. Later last month came a claim that the contract undermined one COTS company’s efforts at raising private capital, raising questions about that company’s future.

At the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting at FAA Headquarters last Friday, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, went to great lengths to indicate that NASA was not only still planning to use, but was heavily counting on, commercial launch services to resupply the ISS after the shuttle’s retirement. Even when taking Progress, ATV, and HTV flights into account, Gerstenmaier said there would be a cargo shortfall of at least 48.8 metric tons from FY2010 through 2015. “That’s what we’re talking about as available, potentially, to the domestic market,” he said. The Russian cargo services NASA has procured in 2010 and 2011 are the bare minimum of what’s needed to keep the station alive, he added. “It’s not a sustainable station in that sense,” he said. “The station will not deorbit” in that scenario, but without additional cargo deliveries “it will not have any operational capability or ability to do much research.”

(Gerstenmaier’s slides from his presentation should be posted here in the near future.)

3 comments to Alleviating COTS concerns

  • Charles in Houston

    What is most interesting, as ever, is what is NOT said. Certainly there will be a need for a lot of additional logistics to Station but the form of the logistics is the real “long pole in the tent” that people have seldom mentioned.

    Even with HTV, ATV, and Progress we will have no way of getting Control Moment Gyros, solar panels, and other large and heavy items up to Station – especially the ones that are mounted outside the pressurized volume. The CMGs alone have required replacement and continue to make noise, vibrate, etc – indications that we had better start to think about additional replacements. How are we gonna get those items up to Station? If we need to replace other large items (and the list is long) that go outside the Station – how are those going to get up there without Shuttle?? Many of those items will not fit through any hatch.

    So perhaps the COTS folks could count on a monopoly to deliver big and external items??

  • richardb

    As I understand Nasa’s plans, they intend to stock the station with CMG’s and other large pieces that are shuttle dependent and essential. Of course they can’t stock everything so given Nasa wants the station till around 2020, I’d say they are creating a lucrative market for outsized cargo.

    Nasa must come up with viable plans once the shuttles are museum attractions. It would destroy their political base if the Station is unusable because the supply chain from earth is broken. For them, I see COTS and other private players as essential to Nasa.

  • For what it’s worth, Rocketplane Kistler claims that they can handle the out-sized elements. I also believe NASA has an effort under way to develop a smaller, second generation replacement for the CMGs, though I’m not clear on how serious that is.

    Also, while I would in no way want to undermine COTS, let us not forget that the Soyuz is at least as commercial as any existing American player, and probably as much so as a subsidized COTS. Energya is a publicly traded company comparable to French aerospace companies. The Space Station is already supporting a commercial launch industry, albeit not a domestic one, and it is hard to blame the Russian’s for the policy failures that resulted in this state of affairs. For those of us interested in the wider human future in the Solar System, rather than an exclusively American future per se, these are excellent developments whatever happens to the existing COTS efforts.

    Also, the European cargo module is ridiculously complex and expensive, and my bet is that it is unlikely to be a serious contender if either COTS company succeeds in significantly reducing costs. Likewise, I think that Japanese space technology has so far proved too unreliable to rely on.

    Notwithstanding all of that, an American future in the Solar System may well be critically dependent on COTS success, so we should do everything in our power to make sure there remains a market for COTS.

    — Donald

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