COTS Hits the Big 1-0

Cygnus approaches ISS (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus approaches ISS (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Ten years ago, on August 18, 2006, NASA announced agreements with two private companies that dramatically changed the way NASA does business and the landscape for the commercial space industry.

The announcement was rooted in long term trends dating back to the 1980s, but the immediate cause of this change can be traced to the report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. In the wake of the Columbia accident in 2003, and the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration by President Bush in early 2004, the Commission was tasked with coming up with recommendations about future space policy.


ASAP Identifies What NASA Got Right in COTS Program

In its 2013 annual report, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) calls the COTS program “extremely successful,” noting the space agency and its partners, Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX, developed two new launch vehicles and cargo ships for less than the price of a single Space Shuttle flight.

The report provides a succinct synopsis of what NASA did right during the program:

It is important to point out that it was not simply the use of fixed-price Space Act Agreements that led to the Program’s success, although that helped to enable the successful outcome. Rather, NASA did a number of things right along the way, such as maintaining excellent program management, appointing well-qualified technical representatives to the PITs, providing the right amount of insight, requesting the right amount of information, and having the right number of Government attendees at industry meetings. Although the Government has much technical expertise to share, too much Government engagement can stifle industry innovation and/or significantly slow the “speed of decisions.” Finally, program flexibility made a substantial difference. One example of that was eliminating Rocketplane-Kistler as a partner when it failed to successfully complete program milestones and introducing Orbital Sciences Corporation to maintain competition for SpaceX. Another example was NASA’s willingness to combine SpaceX’s two demonstration missions into one when it became clear that all program objectives could be accomplished on a single flight.

“It would certainly not be appropriate for every Government program to use a COTS-type management philosophy, but we would encourage NASA (and other Government agencies) to consider adopting similar approaches where possible,” the report concludes.

Rocketplane: A Space Tourism Post Mortem

The late Rocketplane which was to have flown from Oklahoma.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an account of George French’s odyssey from billboard king to bankrupt NewSpace entrepreneur. His Rocketplane Global and Rocketplane Kistler ventures were once in prime positions to capture large shares of both the suborbital space tourism market and commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. And yet both efforts collapsed amid funding woes, multiple bankruptcy filings, and a flood of lawsuits from unpaid employees and vendors.

For NewSpace advocates, this is a sad story. But, it’s really not unusual. A vast majority of start ups fail, for a whole host of reasons ranging from mismanagement to simply bad timing. Rocketplane is certainly not the first — nor will it be the last — NewSpace company to fail.

NASA may buy Russian transport services

The AP reports that NASA may rely on Russian rockets to deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station if private companies don’t succeed in building alternate vehicles under the agency’s COTS program.

NASA has earmarked nearly $500 million to two private companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, to build orbital spacecraft. The agency recently canceled its contract with Rocketplane Kistler after the Oklahoma company failed to raise sufficient private funding. Kistler recently lost an appeal of that decision.

Meanwhile, New Scientist reports that NASA will shortly name a new COTS partner.