Another Route To Space

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Launch of the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares liquid-fueled rocket Sunday gives NASA a second U.S.-owned vehicle to use in resupplying the International Space Station, vindicating a commercial approach that has been in play through two presidential administrations.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Although President Barack Obama terminated the Constellation program of human exploration vehicles that NASA started developing under his predecessor, he retained the $500 million Commercial Orbital Resupply Services (COTS) effort launched under President George W. Bush.

SpaceX already has completed its COTS development with the Falcon 9 and Dragon, and is delivering cargo to the station under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. If Orbital Sciences can deliver a demonstration load with its Cygnus cargo vehicle later this year, it can draw its final COTS payment and begin resupplying the station under its own eight-flight, $1.9 billion CRS contract. Essentially, NASA will have spent $288 million on developing the Antares/Cygnus stack.

SpaceX designed its Dragon from the beginning to carry crew, and is making the necessary modifications to its cargo variant under a separate NASA commercial crew development program established along the same lines as COTS. Two other companies -- Boeing and Sierra Nevada -- are developing crew vehicles with NASA seed money, and another -- Blue Origin -- is paying its own way with NASA technical support. Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences decided to focus on cargo and not enter the crew-vehicle sweepstakes, marketing Antares to government and commercial customers as a replacement to the retiring Delta II.

And while Cygnus can't return into the Earth's atmosphere, Orbital already has a NASA contract to use a future Cygnus as a free-flying automatic laboratory for potentially dangerous combustion experiments after it delivers its load to the ISS, and hopes to sell other Cygnus vehicles for similar uses.

It is conventional wisdom in U.S. space-policy circles that the political and spacecraft development cycles are out of sync. Presidents come and go faster than it is possible to develop a major new spacecraft, which leads to wasteful start-and-stop funding as administrations change. Certainly a lot of money went down the drain when Obama killed the Constellation program. But in keeping COTS, a Republican initiative, this Democratic president has saved NASA and the nation some cash.

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