NASA Cargo Resupply Decision Set for Next Week

Cygnus and ISS robotic arm (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus and ISS robotic arm (Credit: NASA)

On Nov. 5, NASA will announce contracts worth up to $14 billion to fly cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for 2018 until 2024.

Four companies reportedly remain in the Commercial Resupply Services 2 competition: incumbents Orbital ATK and SpaceX, and challengers Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation. Lockheed Martin has been reportedly eliminated from the competition.

Orbital ATK and SpaceX are offering their Cygnus and Dragon spacecraft, respectively. The vehicles have each flown multiple missions to the space station under CRS 1 contracts. Both systems are grounded due to launch failures that occurred in June and last October.

Boeing has proposed using a cargo variant of its CST-100 crew vehicle it is building under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Sierra Nevada has proposed a cargo version of its Dream Chaser shuttle.

Losing the contract would be a significant blow to Orbital ATK. The company has not announced any additional launch contracts for its Antares booster, which was developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Unlike Boeing and SpaceX, the company does not have a relationship with Bigelow Aerospace, which is planning to launch commercial space stations later this decade.

Of the f0ur cargo ships, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus is the only one that would be incapable of returning cargo to Earth. ISS astronauts fill it with trash that is destroyed when the cargo ship burns up in the atmosphere.

Antares is the only orbital rocket to launch from Wallops Island, Va. NASA and Virginia have spent millions of dollars on facilities on Wallops to support Orbital ATK’s operations there.

Winning a contract would be a major boost for Sierra Nevada. The Dream Chaser was eliminated last year from the Commercial Crew competition in favor of Boeing and SpaceX. The company has continued to develop the vehicle using its own funding.

Boeing would benefit from a cargo award because it could spread CST-100 production costs over more vehicles. The same is true for SpaceX and its Dragon capsule, which it is also developing for commercial crew missions.

NASA has delayed the decision several times this year.


    I want spaceX and Sierra Nevada.
    We need reusable cargo/crew ships that can do affordable reusable pin point landings.

  • DougSpace

    $14 B sure seems like an awful lot of money. Is this the low-cost, competitive future we were promised starting with COTS? And supplying the ISS in LEO for beyond what our international partners want. I would much rather that money go towards a new Lunar COTS program so that we could begin establishing a sustainable cis-lunar transportation system and permanent lunar base.

  • passinglurker

    Orbital is essential to increasing the iss crew compliment because it is the only high capacity cargo ship the others take hits for rentry capabilty the European atv is decommissioned and Japan can barely afford htv flights.

    I would hope snc gets one of the remaining slots because spacex will be doing splash downs for a while yet and boeing will be the most expensive of the lot though those reputation combined with landing on land could tip the odds in their favor like in commercial crew.


    Why not fly Cygnus on reusable falcon? Get the cost down.


    Where is the falcon heavy R Cots plan, that builds a reusable affordable highway to the moon? Fuel depots and all,
    Couldn’t a lunar cots program build a highway to the moon for less than the cost of SLS/Orion? And you end up with something inexpensive enough to promote growth? Tourism, moon mining

  • Let’s have everyone’s predictions!
    Mine: SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing.



  • Paul_Scutts

    NASA’s delaying the announcement, IMO, has, unfortunately, tipped the odds in favour of one of them being Boeing. I agree with DTARS, it would be nice if NASA showed some forward thinking and awarded SNC some much needed and long overdue further financial support, but, knowing how the lobbying machinery works, I’m not holding my breath. 🙁

  • passinglurker

    You have to strike a balance between mass production of a single rocket family to bring the cost down and providing enough business to support multiple rocket families to provide redundancy. Also Cygnus may be more expensive and less frequent than dragon but it carries up A LOT more cargo meanwhile dragon potentially provides a surplus of down mass (if I recall correctly they planned to fill CRS-7 with trash before it failed)

    As for japan. I dunno national pride? shipping costs? to expensive to incorporate into a whole new rocket? the fact that we don’t have falcon R’s yet? SpaceX is doing some great stuff but it’ll be a sad world if they were the only show in town. I imagine expendables will still fly for some time after falcon R becomes a thing spaceX only has so much capacity it will become more expensive for some satellites to wait in expensive storage than it is to launch on a disposable rocket from a business hungry competitor.

  • passinglurker

    Well double redundancy did prove to not be sufficient so why not triple? Also they’d need all the cargo throughput they can get if they want to increase the crew capacity to make the most of the stations final years and kick start commercial industry at the same time.

  • passinglurker

    SpaceX, Orbital ATK for a reliable cargo source, SNC for innovation.

    Boeing doesn’t have the “fund us or we quit” card in its hand this time around

  • DougSpace

    Lunar COTS is a proposed program and has not yet need adopted as policy. See Falcon Heavy is one approach but there are others. Fuel depots might well be included but there is an architecture which doesn’t require that. Using shade on the moon to keep propellant liquid, docking vehicles in space, and in-space vehicles docking and pushing craft is an alternate approach to propellant depots. Lunar COTS could well develop low-cost access to the moon and would logically involve ice harvesting, international lunar research, and cis-lunar and lunar surface tourism, certainly.

  • PK Sink

    NASA already funds Space X, Orbitatk and Boeing for cargo or crew. I’m hoping they’ll use this opportunity to invite Sierra Nevada to the party. I’ve never seen where they have limited the awards to just two providers.

  • Sam Moore

    Shouldn’t we wait until we see the actual award amount before we make these kind of judgements?

  • Sam Moore

    Orbital, and either SpaceX or Boeing. Boeing more likely given CST-100 is going to be easier to loft the increased cargo requirements for CRS-2, but I’ve no idea what SpaceX have up their sleeve.

  • DougSpace

    Sam, Of course we could just wait and see. But if the US keeps making multi-billion dollar awards to support the ISS then there is an opportunity cost. What could have been done otherwise with that money?

    I have emailed the NASA contact and have spoken with two of those in charge of the Commercial Cargo Program pointing out the high $/kg to LEO these awards represent. But I didn’t receive a response. I have also presented the Lunar COTS petitions to the same.

    For me it comes down to the question of where will we get the most bang for our buck. Instead of six additional years of ISS support with reluctant support from ISS partners, wouldn’t it be better to instead use that money to fund companies to start developing reusable cryogenic lunar landers and also have companies start developing ice-harvesting hardware in terrestrial labs simulating the environmental conditions of the moon? 2024 is 9 years away and we could have that hardware delivering the first robots to the moon by that time to initiate a low-cost cis-lunar transportation system.

    Are we sure that six years and up to $14 B will give us significant value? Will we even figure out the prescription for artificial gravity when there probably will be no centrifuge module on the ISS by 2024? Stuff like that. Just saying.

  • therealdmt

    SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus

    Why? Dragon is the cheapest — and the whole purpose of commercial cargo resupply is to lower the cost of resupplying the space station now and laying the groundwork for a much cheaper commercial LEO infrastructure that NASA will be able to access after ISS ends. Moreover, there is some promise of SpaceX’s services getting cheaper by the end of the contract if follow on flights are added such as has happened for the first COTS or the station is further extended to 2028.

    Actually, there was one other purpose to commercial cargo — giving the US its own independent cargo services after the end of the shuttle. Only SpaceX has a rocket with a non-Russian engined first stage.

    So, SpaceX.

    Then, Orbital ATK’s Antares/Cygnus. Cygnus has the most cargo capacity and NASA has shown proposals using Cygnus as the basis of a hab module to attach to Orion for longer flights (SLS and Orion being the other part of NASA’s plans going forward).

    Why not Boeing’s CST-100? Most expensive in a program designed to lower costs. NASA,s high comfort level with Boeing could give it a chance though. Why not Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser? A sentimental favorite that does have a chance, but still has the most development risk by far. NASA did however show great willingness to take development risk with the first COTS, so that might not be as big a factor as it would at first seem. DreamChaser may provide the least cargo capacity of any of the vehicles though (I’m not sure on that) and its low G descent and landings are less important for cargo than they would be for people. I think that ultimately, in a hard choice,n’t hey get cut (perhaps another partial award?)

  • Good points. So what’s your prediction?

  • Joe

    I love Dream Chaser as much as the next guy but there are logical arguments behind picking Boeing that don’t depend on lobbying.

    Spreading production across multiple vehicles will help a lot especially since it looks like CC won’t be fully funded this year.

    Also (Unfortunately) cargo Dream Chaser has much farther to go than a cargo CST-100.

  • pathfinder_01

    I think the best outcome would be Cygnus , Dragon and Star liner. Boeing could be cheaper or at least with a less risky price than SNC.

    It wouldn’t cost much for Boeing to make a cargo variant of the CST-100 and they could piggy back costs with the crewed program. While Dream chaser is reusable, so is CST-100 and the cost to reuse Dream chaser might outstrip the cost to refurbish CST-100. Esp. as a Cargo Dream chaser has no other program to share parts or workers with unlike either Dragon or Star liner.

    I don’t think the dream chaser is that attractive a cargo craft. Won’t carry as much as some others and will require a larger version of Atlas than CST-100(which could also ride on Falcon 9).

    The outcome I fear but could happen would be Cygnus and Star liner as the cargo launches give Space X a chance to test and mature technology. Dream chaser is an attractive crew craft, and would be a good choice for a commercial crew II type program or some other expansion but as a cargo craft the only thing it brings to the table is ability to land on an runway. Dragon could mature into pin point landings and CST-100 would be able to land in a pretty tight area (just not on a pad).

  • Tannia Ling

    Maybe, just maybe, it is an awful lot of money because that is what is actually needed??? The truth of the matter is that even SpaceX’s “magic” has only resulted in a factor of 2 or so redcution in $/kg (at best). We can talk about reusability, but we are years away from it being routine.
    The harsh truth is that since Oct 4, 1957 three things have not, and likely will not, changed: F=ma ; dV = ve ln (m0/mf); E = 1/2mv^2
    Until you can find out how to fundamentally go around those three things why would you expect the cost to be significantly lower. COTS/CRS IS cheaper than normal government programs (insert SLS here) but it will never be super cheap.
    Investing in a permanent lunar base has appeal, and I would love to see us do that. But how do we keep the International Moon Station from becoming the money sink that the International Space Station is? How do we increase its research potential?

  • Tannia Ling

    Space tourism is dead. We have close to exhausted the number of billionaires willing to pay millions to go to the ISS. Tourism to the moon may bring some additional interest, but it will be that much more expensive. Meanwhile in the suborbital domain Virgin has shown that it is 1) much harder than thought and 2) customers are more risk adverse than expected.
    Moon mining is only useful if there is a customer for the product. Short term that could only mean fuel depots … to go to (the moon? mars? asteroids? got to figure that one out). Long term Helim-3 has potential, but that is really long term.

    If we go to the moon it will be purely for science, not for commercial reasons. There might be some “commercial” activities, much like on the ISS, but a moon base will be a government funded, scientific facility.

  • TimAndrews868

    How would the delay tip the odds in Boeing’s favor?

    My suspicion has been that the delay (first delay came after Orbital’s loss, the second not long after CRS-7) has been until reports on both provider’s losses were nearly complete so they’d have confidence in return to flight.

  • TimAndrews868

    For that very reason, I don’t think SNC will get an award.
    SNC still needs development funding and time to make Dream Chaser a reality. The’ve got 3 options with vehicles that only have launch and operations costs, SNC would have launch and operations plus development costs.

  • Vladislaw

    What is the maximum Pressurized and unpressurized payload amounts for both the Cygnus and Dragon… I do not believe there is that huge of difference,

    “Payload to ISS 3,310 kg (7,300 lb), which can be all pressurized, all unpressurized or anywhere in between. It can return to Earth 3,310 kg (7,300 lb), which can be all unpressurized disposal mass or up to 2,500 kg (5,500 lb) of return pressurized cargo”

    “Delivered Payload:[2] 2,000 kg (4,400 lb)Antares 230: 3,200 kg (7,100 lb)[3]
    Atlas V: 3,500 kg (7,700 lb)[3][4]

  • TimAndrews868

    Additionally, Dragon/Cygnus gives the most redundancy possible.

    By the time CRS2 is in place, Cygnus will be able to launch on Atlas V or Antares, and Dragon of course on Falcon 9. That solution gives the redundancy of 3 boosters.

    Cygnus/Dreamchaser or Cygnus/StarLiner gives redundancy of only 2 boosters, Antares and Atlas V.

    Dreamchaser/StarLiner gives no booster redundancy as they’re being built to launch on the same booster, Atlas V.

    And yes, Dreamchaser could potentially be launched by other boosters, but being capable in concept of being launched by them is not nearly the same as already having integration studies done and a track record of successful launches. Cygnus is the only vehicle on track to have that on more than one booster by the time CRS2 comes into play.

  • Vladislaw

    SNC has to buy rockets at the retail price to launch a vehicle that weighs 10,000 pounds more than the capsules. Not a single pound gets launched for free. at 3000 dollars a pound that automatically adds a minimum of an extra 30 million per flight.. making every pound of cargo more expensive.. It is a specialty vehicle that requires a larger market first.

  • Vladislaw

    14 billion divided by four ..

    SpaceX two flights per year
    Boeing two flights per year
    Orbital two fllghts per year
    SNC 1 flight per year


    With extra falcon 1.2 power SpaceX could add a pressured trunk option

  • therealdmt

    “Dreamchaser/StarLiner gives no booster redundancy as they’re being built to launch on the same booster, Atlas V.”

    Good point.

    A counterpoint could be that supposedly 5 years or so down the line, DreamChaser and/or CST-100 would supposedly be using an all-U.S. engined Vulcan (as opposed to a Russian-engined Antares II). Another thing is that ULA will be in a really tight spot as their RD-180s run out in about 3 years and they can’t bid for Air Force contracts until (the as yet undeveloped) Vulcan has 3 flights/certification say two years later. As ULA is NASA’s most trusted launch provider, could they decide that ULA might *need* to be thrown this bone to stay viable until Vulcan comes online?

    A lot of pieces are in play. Quite interesting, but with harsh outcomes for those who are left out. Like a lot of others here, I’d like to see SpaceX and Sierra Nevada get the awards, but I don’t think Sierra Nevada has really shown enough and NASA could decided that of all of them, SpaceX is the most likely to be able to survive without the award. We’ll see…

  • PK Sink

    In my happy little world it would be SpaceX, Orbitatk, and SNC. However, I’m afraid that your prediction is the more realistic one.

  • PK Sink

    Yep. It’s a Hail Mary pass for sure.

  • TimAndrews868

    “A counterpoint could be that supposedly 5 years or so down the line, DreamChaser and/or CST-100 would supposedly be using an all-U.S. engined Vulcan ”

    That’s not a counter-point. That’s the same problem – both vehicles having a common launcher, rather than launcher redundancy.

    “ULA will be in a really tight spot as their RD-180s run out in about 3 years”

    ULA is not prohibited from purchasing RD-180s for launches of payloads that don’t belong to the DoD.

    “SpaceX is the most likely to be able to survive without the award.” While that is true, I don’t believe that is a part of the contract evaluation criteria.

  • TimAndrews868

    SNC still needs money to finish developing Dream Chaser, in addition to being paid for however many flights.

  • pathfinder_01

    The problem is that life support supplies tend to be bulky and not heavy. Cygnus might be able to haul less mass than Dragon due to an weaker rocket but it’s greater volume means it can haul more up. Dragon and CST-100 have the advantage of being able to return the Cargo.

  • Carl Davies

    2 Possible outcomes to my mind, 1: The status quo – fly the vehicles that are currently flying, take a robust attitude to vehicle loss based on the maxim ‘space is hard’ – so Spacex and Orbital keep flying 2: The ‘political’ solution – offset the lack of funding for commercial crew by selecting Spacex and Boeing – fund commercial crew by proxy

    Could go either way, I’d be amazed if Spacex don’t get a slice of the pie

  • Vladislaw

    I would like to see more cargo flights with down capabilty .. you want to analyze experiments and get the next iteration into LEO.

  • Vladislaw

    virgin showed us how NOT to do it… which is just as valuable at times.
    The Russians have never failed to fill an extra seat to the ISS, of commercial passengers, one has already went twice. That was at 35 and 40 million.
    Bigelow is still advertising 2 months for 26 and 36 million .. I doubt there is going to be trouble filling seats.

  • Vladislaw

    the original CRS was 3.9 billion for 20 flights. over 4 years? About a 1 billion a year?
    This one is for 14 billion over six years so it would seem there is a lot more launches planned.

  • Vladislaw

    As long at we have routine cargo delivery at the end of it for the next spiral outward ..

  • ThomasLMatula

    You are saving over the $21 billion it would have cost for a Shuttle to fly cargo for 6 years. But then the passenger part would be free 🙂

    Bottom line, it looks like CCP and Commercial Cargo will cost the same to service the ISS as the Shuttle, without the capability to fix the ISS or disassemble it at the end. A great leap forward.

    Of course the big unknown is how long will the ISS last before a failure requires it to be abandoned.

  • mattmcc80

    Since ATV is no longer flying, they needs more US flights to make up the loss. ATV’s payload capacity was more than double that of Dragon/Cygnus, after all. There also don’t appear to be plans at this time for the HTV to fly past 2019, though of course that could change.

  • Ian1102

    We are nowhere near exhausting the market for orbital space tourism. There are lots of very wealthy people who would be interested, either because of ego, nostalgia for Apollo or because they are tech/science or adventure minded. Right now, the market is limited by:
    1) Very low capacity – there are almost no seats available
    2) The need to spend 10 months in Russia to fly, including language training and rigorous medical screening. Just the 10 months alone eliminate a lot of wealthy people, who often have busy lives and lots of obligations that prevent them from spending the time.
    3) The high cost. Tito went up for $20m. The price is now quoted at $50m. If the price were to fall back to $20m or $25m per seat, there would be a lot of takers. There are a lot more billionaires in the world now than there were in 2001 and many would prefer to fly on a new U.S. vehicle than any existing system.

    At $20m per seat on a U.S. craft and a much shortened training period, I can totally see 10-20 tourists per year paying to go. If the cost came down to $10m per seat, I could see that expand to 40-50 per year. Enough to start justifying a dedicated launch facility and orbital stations.

  • therealdmt


    ”That’s the same problem – both vehicles having a common launcher, rather than launcher redundancy.”

    I agree. That’s why I said above, “That sort of thinking could lead to the inclusion of one of these two.” (Not both)

  • pathfinder_01

    err not quite. The commercial crew craft also act as lifeboats. The shuttle could only deliver crew so it would be the cost of the Shuttle and the cost of an Soyuz flight and the crew would be limited to 6(Soyuz fits 3 only).

  • DougSpace

    It is premature to declare space tourism to be dead. It mostly depends upon the cost to LEO and with SpaceX so close to achieving reuse of their first stage, I think that we should remain open-minded about how much it will cost tourists to travel to space in 10 to 15 years time and hence, how many people could afford that.

    As for circum-lunar and lunar surface trips, the in-space craft would likely be reusable from the get-go since it doesn’t have to go through Max-Q or the temperature and dynamic load extremes of full reentry. So the additional cost would largely the cost of either launching propellant from Earth using partially or fully reusable launchers or the cost of providing propellant from lunar resources.

  • windbourne

    and if BA pushes for the moon after they put up their first station, then you can bet on it, that a number of nations will be paying BA for training.

  • windbourne

    cygnus has bigger volume, not heavier payload ( using Anteres that is).
    And with Falcon V1.3, it should take up more if needed, otherwise, be a great deal cheaper.

  • numbers_guy101

    This competition is Orbitals to lose.

    This is a given, seeing the prices for the first round of awards were relatively low compared to anything that would involve CST-100 variants and Atlas’s.

    Sierra on a Falcon might work at the price point NASA is looking for, less than $150M total per launch, a nice split between Sierra paying for Falcon 9’s and recovering build costs and turnaround costs with a small number of vehicles (a couple?).

    Anything on Atlas blows almost all the likely amount NASA is looking to award JUST on the Atlas – something Orbital is able to work out once or twice having a contract already, but not something that would work on a recurring basis.

  • numbers_guy101

    A curious scenario, except that CRS-2 needs actual flights at very low dollar amounts (consistent with CRS’s first round). Funding Boeing CST-100 indirectly would only work if the two were near the same price range, which they are not. Boeing would have to give a significant markdown on both Atlas and CST-100 to fit inside the cargo price ranges NASA has money for.