NASA Outsources ISS Resupply

The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) announced plans to outsource upcoming resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX vehicles will make twelve trips to the space station and Orbital Sciences Corporation vehicles will make eight between 2010 and 2016. Each contractor is scheduled to haul more than twenty tons of cargo to the ISS during the course of the agreement.
An artist's rendering of the Cygnus spacecraft approaching the ISS (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation) 
An artist’s rendering of the Cygnus
spacecraft approaching the ISS
(Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies, will get $1.6 billion to move at least 20 tons of cargo on twelve trips using its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft. The Falcon 9 is a two stage liquid oxygen and kerosene powered rocket designed primarily for reliability. The Dragon spacecraft is designed to haul both pressurized and unpressurized cargo and is also capable of returning cargo to Earth. It can also carry up to seven people if cargo is omitted.

 
Orbital Sciences Corporation will get $1.9 billion to move at least 20 tons of cargo on eight trips to the ISS between 2011 and 2015. The Orbital flights will use the new Taurus II medium-lift launch vehicle and the new Cygnus space vehicle. The Taurus II launch vehicle is also a two stage rocket able to launch from a variety of sites including Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Cygnus spacecraft is being designed specifically for this NASA contract and will support both pressurized and unpressurized cargo and is also capable of returning cargo from the ISS back to Earth. Cygnus makes extensive use of existing components and designs from Orbital, NASA, and Thales Alenia Space. It also incorporates guidance and navigational systems developed by Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA.
 
The Taurus II launch vehicle (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation) 
The Taurus II launch vehicle
(Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

SpaceX will spend much of 2009 testing the combination of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft, culminating in a test run to the ISS in 2010 complete with a full docking. Orbital Sciences also plans a test run to the ISS in late 2010.

 
This is the first time NASA has outsourced cargo flights to the ISS. The contracts are necessary to continue necessary ISS support services after the space shuttles are retired. If things go well with these contracts, additional outsourcing to commercial space companies may be forthcoming.
 
TFOT has previously covered the (unsuccessful) Falcon 1 test flight in 2007 and reported on other commercial space projects currently under development or in testing stages including the VASIMR plasma rocket being developed by Ad Astra Rocket Company, the lunar lander built by Armadillo Aerospace as part of Northrup Grumman’s Lunar Lander Challenge, the design of a new commercial spaceport in New Mexico, and a new compact spacesuit designed for use by everyday people in space.
 
You can read the official NASA press release about the two contracts here. More about the SpaceX portions of the contract can be found in their press release here. You can also read more about the Falcon 9 launch vehicle here and about the Dragon spacecraft here. The Orbital Sciences Corporation press release covering the contract is available here. You can find information about the Taurus II launch vehicle here and the Cygnus spacecraft here (PDF).