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Caught up in 'COTS'

— The idea behind NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, is that the space agency would add a healthy dash of entrepreneurship to the task of keeping the international space station supplied with cargo and crew. Over the next four years, NASA plans to make $500 million available for demonstrations of new ways to service the station as the shuttle fleet nears its retirement.

That's a nice plum for the space industry's entrepreneurs - but unfortunately, COTS is creating its share of disappointments and delays as well.

For example, Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler says the crush of COTS "homework" assigned by the space agency has put a crimp in its plans to begin testing its suborbital space vehicle next year. Chuck Lauer, the company's vice president of business development, said employees are having to deal with requests for more information about their proposal to supply the space station with the Kistler K-1 launch system.

The COTS-related delay, added to the usual launch slips, means that the Rocketplane XP craft - a commercial jet modified to carry a rocket engine as well - isn't expected to roll out until the end of 2007, Lauer told me at this weekend's NewSpace 2006 conference in Las Vegas. Test flights could begin in early 2008, and the craft could enter commercial service in the third quarter of 2008.

Doing extra homework for COTS is a problem Charles Miller would love to have. As president of California-based Constellation Services International, he has championed a system that would send up cargo containers designed to mate with Russia's Progress supply spaceship as well as the space station.

The idea is that a Progress craft already docked to the station could head out under robo-control, then link up with the container well before it nears the station.

Constellation Services International
In this artist's conception, a regular Soyuz craft is docked to the
international space station at left, and a robotic Progress ship with a LEO
Express module is docked at center, with gold-colored attachments.

"At this point, you basically have a 'stretch' Progress," Miller explained. The unmanned Progress would then bring the container back and plug it into a space station port for unloading.

Miller said the patented LEO Express system represented a low-cost solution to the station's "last mile" problem - that is, NASA's sense that bringing a totally new piece of hardware near the station would pose too much of a collision risk, a la Mir.

But when Constellation Services proposed LEO Express for the COTS program, NASA turned it down. Miller said there appeared to be three strikes against it:

  • A technology that wasn't new enough. That should be a plus, Miller said, because the system relies on tried-and-true Soyuz architecture. But NASA wanted to use COTS as an opportunity to back new approaches rather than the tried and true.
  • A dependence on non-U.S. technology. Miller acknowledged that the LEO Express plan had a distinctly Russian flavor, but he said that shouldn't rule out using the system. He also said Constellation Services would have worked with industry partners to Americanize the concept as the project moved forward.
  • Finally, the LEO Express system was designed specifically for cargo delivery rather than crew transportation as well - an add-on that's known among the COTS applicants as "Option D."

That last strike was a particularly tough one for Miller. In a Space News article published online Friday, he complained that the rules of the COTS game had been changed to put more emphasis on the crew angle and technology development. To hear him tell it, NASA was passing up "a sure thing" for somewhat more speculative ventures.

NASA has declined any comment on the COTS finalists (and non-finalists), pending a decision on the competition's winners expected in the August-September time frame.

Despite the disappointment, Miller hasn't given up on the idea.

"Our investors are still supportive," he told me at the NewSpace meeting. "They believe that long-term, that cargo opportunity will still be there. Customers have been known to change their minds."

The problem of resupplying the space station will continue to plague NASA, and the space agency might have to take up the issue again once it ties up the COTS competition, Miller said.

Another cause for hope is that NASA isn't necessarily the only game in town: Miller said the company is also "in discussions" with Virginia-based Space Adventures on the possibility of using the system to carry space passengers' stuff to the Russian side of the space station - or even facilitate around-the-moon journeys. So stay tuned.

Here in Las Vegas, I've been gathering information for a few longer-range reports on the commercial space race - but other journalists have been blogging the blow-by-blow on a daily basis. The top bloggers include:

  • Clark Lindsey at RLV and Space Transport News, who has been outlining presentations on a near-real-time basis - in addition to linking to other developments such as NASASpaceFlight.com's report on changes in the design of the space shuttle's successor.
  • Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial Musings, who has provided instant in-depth reports on the conference's more interesting panels. His account of today's "sex in space" seminar - an event that I also covered - includes a new three-letter acronym for doing the deed off-planet: ECA, which stands for extraterrestrial copulatory activity.
  • Jeff Foust at Personal Spaceflight, who is also including reports from Vegas in this week's issue of The Space Review. I'm the blue-and-brown blur in this photo from Jeff's Bigelow Aerospace gallery.

The next day or so could be a blur for me as well, as I head down to Texas for the final leg of my summer space tour. Again, stay tuned.