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Strange space bedfellows

PlanetSpace / Lockheed Martin / ATK
An artist's conception shows a Lockheed Martin-built Orbital Transfer Vehicle being
maneuvered at the international space station by a robotic arm.

The competition to build spaceships for NASA can lead to alliances as strange as anything seen on a "Survivor" episode, as illustrated by PlanetSpace's new partnership with two space heavyweights. Lockheed Martin and ATK are the leading players in NASA's effort to build the multibillion-dollar successor to the space shuttle - but at the same time, they're the junior partners in a bid to build a low-cost alternative to that successor, taking directions from a prime contractor that's never launched anything into outer space.

Chirinjeev Kathuria, the chairman of Chicago-based PlanetSpace, said the deal announced last week was the result of months of talks.

"We look at it as a huge win for everyone," he told me.

Al Simpson, director of advanced programs for human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, agreed: "If you think about this, it's a very natural fit ... where everybody benefits."

The consortium is one of several that is going after $174.7 million in NASA backing for the development of private-sector spaceships capable of resupplying the international space station. That money was left over from an initial round of budgeting for NASA's $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, when the space agency terminated its agreement with Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler last month.

The application deadline passed last week, and now NASA has until next February to decide who will get the money. NASA's hope is that a little financial push now will lead to low-cost launches later - to help bridge the gap between the shuttle fleet's scheduled retirement in 2010 and the debut of the Orion-Ares launch system in 2013 or later. Even after that point, NASA might stick with private companies for space station resupply, and save the expensive Orion missions for its back-to-the-moon effort

The PlanetSpace-led consortium is vying with several other companies for the COTS leftovers, including:

  • California-based SpaceDev, which is offering its Dream Chaser space plane as a potential cargo carrier. The Dream Chaser, modeled on the HL-20 mini-shuttle design that NASA drew up in the 1980s, could be launched on an Atlas 5 or NASA's next-generation Ares 1 rocket.
  • Texas-based Spacehab, which is proposing to launch its ARCTUS cargo spacecraft on an Atlas 5 or a Delta 4 launch vehicle.
  • Virginia-based Transformational Space, which has been working on a cargo-capable capsule that could be launched by an air-dropped rocket.

Like PlanetSpace, all three of those companies have been developing spaceships with NASA guidance - but without NASA money. They're all hoping for a piece of a more lucrative pie once NASA starts buying flights in the post-shuttle era.

Yet another company, California-based SpaceX, was the other co-winner in the original COTS competition, along with Rocketplane Kistler. The company is already in line to reap $278 million if it hits all of NASA's milestones - and so far, SpaceX says it's on track to conduct the three specified unmanned launch demonstrations by the end of 2009.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk told me his company is seeking a share of newly offered COTS money to demonstrate crew transfer capability. Musk proposed doing a manned demonstration launch in 2010 - say, by sending one test pilot or even a crew of sensor-equipped crash-test dummies to the space station and back. If the demonstration succeeds, operational flights could begin in 2011, he said.

All this ambition and competition just goes to show that PlanetSpace's bid won't be a slam-dunk, even with Lockheed Martin and ATK on its side.

Suborbital vs. orbital
Over the past few months, PlanetSpace has been working with NASA on a concept that involves a hypersonic glider called the Silver Dart and a booster equipped with Alchemy rocket engines based on the tried and true V-2 design. Kathuria told me today that PlanetSpace has hit the first five milestones in its agreement with NASA, and is in "a good position" to fly the suborbital Silver Dart with its Alchemy-powered booster from a Nova Scotia spaceport starting in late 2009 or early 2010.

PlanetSpace / Lockheed Martin / ATK
An artist's conception shows the ATK launch
vehicle that would be developed for NASA's
Commercial Orbital Transportation Services.

"They're going to be used for suborbital, which is cargo express, point-to-point travel and space tourism," Kathuria said.

But the Silver Dart won't be used for the orbital project, he said.

Instead, the plan calls for ATK to develop the launch vehicle and ground processing systems for the COTS project. ATK, which manufactures the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle and is working on NASA's Ares 1 rocket, has a rich assortment of rocket motors and components to choose from.

"What we're doing is taking products that we already produce and combining them," ATK spokesman George Torres told me today. "We can mix and match for almost any requirements."

Lockheed Martin would develop the cargo capsule, which is based on the Orbital Transfer Vehicle design that has been kicking around for years. Simpson said the modular cargo carrier would be capable of delivering supplies to the station and returning them to Earth.

"This will be a low-cost, very reliable vehicle because it's based on heritage design," Simpson said.

PlanetSpace in the pilot's seat
PlanetSpace would take on the role of prime contractor, managing the overall effort - and, not incidentally, rounding up funding for the venture. BMO Capital Markets would assist PlanetSpace as financial adviser for acquisitions as well as debt and equity deals.

Kathuria, an Indian-American physician who made his fortune in the telecommunication and medical-instrument industries, first became involved in space finance seven years ago when he provided millions of dollars to support Russia's Mir space station in its final days. Two and a half years ago, he joined forces with Canadian Arrow rocketeer Geoff Sheering to form PlanetSpace.

Even though PlanetSpace hasn't gone beyond designing and testing spacecraft components on the ground, Lockheed Martin's Simpson said the fledgling company would be the key partner in the venture.

"They want to be in the business, which is what NASA's looking for," Simpson said. "PlanetSpace's access to the private equity world, that's what makes them so critical to the business."

The upside for Lockheed Martin and ATK is that they could enter a low-cost launch market they don't currently service.

The supporting players on PlanetSpace's team include Space Florida, United Launch Alliance, Wyle Laboratories, Paragon Space and MEHTA Engineering. If the consortium wins COTS funding, the first demonstration launch would lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in late 2010, Kathuria said.

Some of PlanetSpace's employees would be based in Ohio, where Kathuria is working on a multimillion-dollar development deal involving Columbus' Rickenbacker International Airport. But the bulk of the orbital work would be done in Florida, Kathuria said.

He projected that an average of 300 or more high-tech aerospace jobs could be created in Florida on an annual basis, including more than 150 jobs at PlanetSpace. A multiuse facility would provide space for business offices as well as clean-room assembly and testing.

Looking longer-term, Kathuria said PlanetSpace orbital launches could continue from Florida - or shift to the Nova Scotia facility, which would become Canada's first orbital spaceport.

That's all assuming that PlanetSpace's bid goes through, of course. Will NASA go for a plan where the aerospace industry's usual suspects take on decidedly unusual roles? Stay tuned for the answer in a couple of months.

Other New Space tidbits
In the meantime, here are some of the other developments in space entrepreneurship - or "New Space," if you prefer: