Congress, NASA, White House

Cygnus success generates a few reactions

Perhaps because of the preoccupation in Washington with the impending (less than one hour from now, as of publication of this post) federal government shutdown, there have only been a handful of reactions to Sunday’s successful berthing of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Shortly after the berthing, NASA did issue a release with statements from administrator Charles Bolden and presidential science advisor John Holdren. “Orbital joins SpaceX in fulfilling the promise of American innovation to maintain America’s leadership in space. As commercial partners demonstrate their new systems for reaching the Station, we at NASA continue to focus on the technologies to reach an asteroid and Mars,” Bolden said.

“This mission is exactly what the President had in mind when he laid out a fresh course for NASA to take Americans deeper into our solar system while relying on private-sector competition to lower the cost of ferrying astronauts and cargo to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station,” Holdren said. (Holden’s statement ignores the fact that Orbital’s accomplishment is part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program, which started in the George W. Bush Administration; Orbital got its award in 2008.)

One organization, though, remembers that COTS dates back more than four years. “Since 2006, the Foundation has supported the COTS program because it uses fixed-price, milestone-based awards,” Space Frontier Foundation president James Pura said in a statement Monday. The organization, he added, “believes that more funding should go into these kinds of programs, including the Commercial Crew program. Programs like COTS and CCiCap [Commercial Crew Integrated Capability] force the space industry to be innovative and not rely solely on cost-plus contracts.”

In Congress, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) recognized the accomplishment in a tweet:

And a former NASA deputy administrator also praised the Cygnus berthing and the successful SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 launch that took place just a few hours later:

24 comments to Cygnus success generates a few reactions

  • Coastal Ron

    The author said:

    Holden’s statement ignores the fact that Orbital’s accomplishment is part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program, which started in the George W. Bush Administration; Orbital got its award in 2008.

    While true he didn’t mention that COTS started with Bush, the goals of the Bush Administration for COTS were not the same as the Obama Administration.

    COTS under Bush/Griffin was just a temporary need until the Constellation program brought down the ISS and removed the need for commercial services of any kind. In other words, it was a temporary, dead end program.

    Obama saw Commercial Cargo and Crew as being a partner with NASA to extend NASA further than it could go on it’s own. In doing that you could say that Obama was channelling Reagan, who released a revised space policy in 1988 that included a directive to encourage the nations commercial space sector.

    While a successful Commercial Cargo program may have happened regardless who was President after Bush, it’s unknown whether anyone but Obama would have made Commercial Crew a priority.

    And so far, the accomplishments of Orbital Sciences and SpaceX with their cargo resupply systems have been showing that the private sector is indeed up to the task of doing the routine tasks that were once reserved for government-owned systems. Considering how much the U.S. Taxpayer is saving over prior government-owned alternatives, I’d also say it’s about time.

  • Fred Willett

    Govt $ was minor compared to traditional programs.
    Said Garver. And that’s the crux of the matter.
    COTS all up cost $800M and for that NASA got two new LVs and two spacecraft. That’s a great deal.
    Now look at the cost of keeping commercial cargo running for 5 years. $1.6B to SpaceX and $1.9B to Orbital. That’s a total of $3.5B over 5 years.
    Shuttle cost $2.4B a year just in personel costs (according to Shannon)so keeping the shuttle flying for 5 years would have cost $12B. commercial cargo thus could be said to save NASA $8.5B over 5 years or $1.7B a year.
    As I said this is the crux of the matter. Commercial cargo is saving NASA big bucks, not just in cargo delivery costs but also in crew costs when commercial crew gets going.
    Commercial is freeing up NASA funds to do more in space.
    Now if only they weren’t wasting so much on SLS….

    • Neil Shipley

      Agreed and this will also happen for crew when they get there. Not only that but MPCV is not required. Certainly DragonCrew can be set up to exceeed the existing requirements for MPCV and at significantly less cost. Wouldn’t be surprised if CST-100 couldn’t also be modified.
      SLS and MPCV are simply not required to enable NASA to restart HSF exploration.

    • Vladislaw

      Fred Willett wrote:

      “COTS all up cost $800M and for that NASA got two new LVs and two spacecraft. That’s a great deal.”

      Was that all that NASA and the Nation recieved from that 800 million?

      -New Sector in the Aerospace industry
      -New high tech jobs for the 21st century
      -Rebuilt rocket engine test stand
      -Rebuilt launch pad.
      -Two new manufacturing Facilities.
      -A new test and design facilitie.
      -A total of five(?) test launches
      -Bringing new commercial satellite launch orders back to America
      -Two new rocket engines and already several upgrades.

      Anymore that can be added?

    • CharlesHouston

      As a long time aerospace guy… Sure Dragon and Cygnus reproduce many of the capabilities of the Shuttle but not some of the most critical. Where is the EVA capability? SRMS? Rendezvous radar? We are saving a lot of money but there is a “cost” of lost Shuttle capability. And sure people will instinctively react “but we don’t really need those capabilities” and since we don’t have them we don’t plan missions that require them.

      I fully expect to see MPCV cancelled but we are gonna have to spend money to upgrade other vehicles to be able to do its mission (as soon as it has a deep space mission!). Dragon does not have radiation hardened avionics and so cannot go into the Van Allen radiation belts. The CST-100 is designed to be a low cost vehicle and does not plan to be able to survive a rentry from lunar return trajectories. Cygnus can go through the Van Allen belts but has no plan to be modified to carry people. We have to piece together a single system that has the planned capability of the MPCV.

      • Coastal Ron

        CharlesHouston said:

        Where is the EVA capability?

        Orion/MPCV doesn’t really have EVA capabilities either, since you end up venting the entire vehicle just to get outside. Transport vehicles don’t need EVA anymore, since the destinations (space-only spacecraft, space stations, etc.) have that capability.


        I assume you mean a robotic arm, right?

        If so, then apparently you haven’t been watching what’s going on with the COTS/CRS vehicles, where they just sidle up to the ISS and get grabbed by the station robotic arms. Why should a vehicle that travels to/from Earth have to carry that? If you’re building something new, you send up a “constructions shack” that has all the basic components you need to capture and assemble the rest of the structure.

        Rendezvous radar?

        Again, the COTS/CRS vehicles have systems that get them close enough to be captured for cargo. For crew, they have their own approach systems.

        We are saving a lot of money but there is a “cost” of lost Shuttle capability.

        Actually you’re looking at it the wrong way. It was far more expensive to operate a “jack of all trades” vehicle than it is to send up specialized hardware. We should have done it before we built the ISS actually, but regardless, we’re there now.

        Dragon does not have radiation hardened avionics and so cannot go into the Van Allen radiation belts.

        My opinion on this hasn’t changed. I don’t see anyone going exploring in a capsule. We’re way past that point now. We will leave LEO in some sort of space-only vehicle.

        The question becomes what do we use for a lifeboat on a space-only vehicle, and how do we get back to Earth. If we built a dedicated LEO-to-EML transportation system, then you would only need to get back to EML if you had to “abandon ship”. That could be done in a smaller space-only vehicle.

        I think Musk plans to use his Dragon’s to land on Mars, not for transporting people to Mars. As for returning to Earth, if someone has that EML-to-LEO transport system in place, I’m sure he’s use that.

        My $0.02

    • Samantha Volk

      If NASA only sent robots and satellites into space how much money would they be saving each year?

  • James

    If Elon Musk decided to do something with his money other than play Rocket Man, where do you supposed NASA Policy would be right now?

    Seems like NASA wants to take credit for what is happening here,,,yet it seems what is happening is all because of one amazing individual – Tony Stark, er Elon Musk.

    So, is it legit for NASA to crow about it’s brilliant policy/strategy here?

    • Neil Shipley

      To be fair, SpaceX have stated publicly that they have received considerable assistance from NASA. This has clearly benefitted them and probably moved them more quickly to where they are today. They were also in the right place at the right time to take advantage of COTS but it is true that they had started before COTS came along.
      I think it’s fair to say that in a hypothetical world where SpaceX didn’t exist, things would be grim but who knows, anything is possible or not. After all, that’s the nature of the Hypothetical.

  • Fifty-five years ago today, NASA opened its doors for business.

    Fifty-five years later, Congress has forced NASA to shutter its doors.

    But SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are still open.

    And to think, for the last three years we’ve had to listen to Congressional porkers claiming we could only have a government space program because the private sector can’t be trusted.

    • Vladislaw

      Stephen C. Smith wrote:

      “But SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are still open.”


      No more will space activities be a single string fault systems operated under the vulgarities of the porkonauts in congress.

  • Their marketing organization is not a good as SpaceX’s

  • amightywind

    I would list Falcon 911 as a success. They failed several mission goals. Orbital performed brilliantly.

    • Neil Shipley

      You are indeed a right twit. What are you actually trying to say?
      On the one hand, you call out the F9 v1.1 as a success and then immediately call them out for ‘failing several mission goals.’ Well, which is it, success, failure, something in between?
      Orbital had a glitch but succeeded in berthing with the ISS. But I agree, they did what was required.
      Falcon also did what was required in that it successfully launched 5 satellites to orbit. It also tried out an experimental approach to returning a first stage with partial success but heaps of data. So much so that SpaceX believe they can engineer out the issues and succeed.
      This is actually well above what Orbital has achieved. It is in fact something no other business or country for that matter has achieved. I don’t count SRBs in this since they were essentially rebuilt which is not in my parlance the same as reusable nor for that matter the shuttle since cost was not part of the reusable equation whereas for SpaceX and indeed anyone else going forward in the current economic environment, making the business case is essential.
      This is probably beyond you but heh, education is good for the soul.

      • Lawrence

        Well, they did fail several mission goals. They were internal goals, and challenging goals, and yet even so the buyer was well served. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about failing at internal mission goals, especially if those goals are stretch goals that teach us new things by attempting them. So I think that’s exactly right. They were successful, and yet they failed at several mission goals. Those things are not inconsistent. They learned a lot. More power to them for having stretch goals.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      They failed several mission goals.

      Which Musk said they likely would, since it was a test flight, and part of the tests were for unknown conditions.

      So apparently you think failures during testing is bad? That companies should only test things if they know that there will be no failures?

      I’m sure I’m not alone in being EXTREMELY happy that you are not in charge of anything important in the commercial space industry.

    • Vladislaw

      using an old 10bit chip instead of the ISS’s 13 bit protocal.. that should have been tested on the ground… yes .. brilliant.

      • A_M_Swallow

        Just make sure Orion and CST-100 use the right chip. NASA sending a letter to their chief designers copied to the quality departments can save a lot of money and embarrassment.

  • John Malkin

    October 1, 2013 at 6:37 am • Reply
    If Elon Musk decided to do something with his money other than play Rocket Man, where do you supposed NASA Policy would be right now?

    There were several companies in the bid. It’s hard to tell how successful the other companies would have been in the end. Orbital shows that more than one company can do it which was one of the goals of COTS as well was CCDev. I wish NASA had gotten the money to keep a few more companies.

    Kenny A. Chaffin
    October 1, 2013 at 7:50 am • Reply
    Their marketing organization is not a good as SpaceX’s

    I don’t think SpaceX marketing designed all those in-house engines, tanks, capsules so I don’t understand how SpaceX marketing really made a difference. Really I never received a deluge of tweets from SpaceX like I did from ATK about Liberty (I had at least 6 in one day). I think Liberty fits more into the marketing rocket mold.

    • Vladislaw

      since liberty went no where, wouldn’t that mean their marketing, though more money was put into it and it was more intense, failed? so it was less effective?

  • Perhaps, as was the case with my company, reaction to the Orbital success was done privately. We sent congratulations to some of the people who spent years making this program a success like former astronaut Carl Walz and Bob Richards. That said, here is the public reaction from ILC Dover: Great job, well done! This was a long time coming but you preservered and found success! Take some time to apprecite the significance of your accomplishment!

  • Bill Ketchum

    Lots of interesting comments here.
    What I find most interesting is the fact that America now has a space transportation system of it’s own again, servicing the ISS with supplies, next with astronauts, at a much lower cost than previously with just government systems.
    Having myself been in the space business for most of my life, I have seen a slow but continuous progress to the day when space travel will be routine.
    It hasn’t been easy but through trial and error we are getting there.
    I just wish I could be here for another 50 years to see it.

  • The success of the commercial space approach is becoming more and more obvious with the successes of both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. At NASA’s recent workshop on the asteroid mission, unfortunately cut short by the shutdown, several participants suggested a commercial approach for reducing the costs of such a mission:

    Commercial Firms Push Alternative Approaches for NASA Asteroid Initiative.
    By Irene Klotz | Oct. 4, 2013

    Bob Clark

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