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.