NASA Orders Two More Cygnus Cargo Vessels, but Does SpaceX Have the Upper Hand?

Jupiter / Exoliner Credit Lockheed Martin

Jupiter / Exoliner
Credit Lockheed Martin

Following another delay in selecting winners for the second round of its Commercial Resupply Program (CRS2), NASA has ordered two more Cygnus cargo missions from Orbital ATK (SpaceNews). That order raises the total number of missions from eight in the original $1.9 billion dollar to ten. Terms of the two order extension have not been disclosed.

With both current vendors Orbital ATK and SpaceX having suffered loss of mission due to launch vehicle failures within the last year, the delays in selecting the vendors for CRS2 have struck some as odd. NASA, for its part has been silent on the subject, citing blackout provisions in which it cannot comment, and saying only that it needed more time to evaluate the proposals.

There are a number of possible explanations for NASA’s extended evaluation phase, beginning with the simplest; the agency really does need more time to do a thorough job. It is a responsibility underscored by the disasters which have punctuated a program which got off to such a good start. While the June 28th SpaceX failure in the CRS-7 mission was a shock which took nearly everyone by surprise, the same cannot be said for the October 28th, 2014 Orbital failure. With two prior test stand explosions of the twin 50 year old Soviet era rocket engines which powered Antares, and Orbital Sciences already conducting a well publicized search for an alternative, there was always a question of whether the company could make it through the 8 run initial order without a launch mishap. Chastened by a difficult year, NASA may simply be taking its time out of an abundance of caution.

Having apparently won the battle to secure the Station’s future through 2024, NASA has paradoxically complicated the resupply challenge by agreeing with the European Space Agency to exchange future ATV cargo missions for contribution of a service module for the Orion spacecraft instead. Combined with uncertainly in Japan’s commitment for annual HTV missions, NASA faces a real, but solvable logistics challenge that it needs to get right.

There is another possibility as well. It may be that one or more of the five vendors; Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, have thrown in a surprise which warrants extra scrutiny. While heeding the caution to never say never, the CRS2 contract looks like it could be the last, best chance for Sierra Nevada and its emotionally resonant Dream Chaser space plane. With the ever present legacy of the Shuttle permeating NASA culture, it may very well be that some within the agency are lobbying hard to to give its diminutive winged offspring a fighting chance.

A win for Dream Chaser would do more than satisfy the call of nostalgia. It would also present NASA and its International Partners a viable alternative to both SpaceX and Boeing for returning sensitive cargo to Earth with a comparatively soft horizontal landing. That such landings might take place in Florida, Texas or possibly even Alabama, suggests that they could be softened even further, at least politically.

Lockheed Martin for its part, presented NASA with something very different to look at. Rather than looking back, its proposal for the Jupiter/Exoliner partially reusable cargo tug, seemed just as focused on NASA’s deep space ambitions as it did on fulfilling the immediate requirements of ISS. Consisting of  a 6.5 ton total capacity pressurized (1.5 ton un-pressurized) container based on the European ATV and an orbital tug based on its own Maven Mars orbiter, Lockheed Martin’s somewhat complicated answer would see the reusable tug (Jupiter) use its robotic arm to connect departing Exoliner containers to Centaur upper stages for guided mutual destruction into the upper atmosphere.

While extensible to deep space supply and potentially solving the Orion spacecraft’s lack of habitable volume for missions lasting more than 21 days, the Lockheed Martin proposal would still leave NASA with a single string solution for cargo return in the event of a two winner scenario. Given the summer’s events, SpaceX may have inadvertently crushed LockMart’s chances when the CRS-7 Dragon was lost.

With Boeing have been understood to present a fairly straight forward but equally capable automated version of its CST-100 for CRS2 and Orbital ATK having done much the same with Cygnus, the other possibility for a surprise lies with SpaceX. Other than a continuation of its current capabilities in the cargo version of Dragon, several intriguing possibilities exist.

One is that following its long term ambitions, and based on successful demonstrations of its SuperDraco engines now extended to the Pad Abort Test, SpaceX has included an option to bring unmanned Dragons back down for a powered landings on solid ground. Given the swifter access to science experiments contained on board, a point Boeing has emphasized for its air-bag cushioned, desert landing approach for CST-100, NASA may be taking a long, hard look at a preferable, but riskier alternative.

Another possibility, though one perhaps much less likely given the absence of supporting comments, is that anticipating the debut of Falcon Heavy, SpaceX elected to include an option for significantly enhanced cargo capacity on a single launch. While the booster would certainly be capable enough, and additional unpressurized cargo could be incorporated into the Dragon’s previously advertised extended trunk option, NASA’s greater need is for pressurized cargo. With proven cargo return its ace in the hole, it is difficult to see SpaceX committing already stretched engineering and manufacturing resources to what would necessarily be a new, additional pressurized container.

The third possibility is that increasingly confident in the prospects for recovering and reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9, SpaceX included an option incorporating eventual reusability into its CRS2 bid. Such a possibility, presented as an option for both Dragon and Falcon would not only be in keeping with the transformational aspects of the COTS program which preceded Commercial Resupply, it would also present NASA with something very compelling, the possibility of measurably reducing the Station’s operational costs and making the case for extending its future to 2028.


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1 Comment on "NASA Orders Two More Cygnus Cargo Vessels, but Does SpaceX Have the Upper Hand?"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    Great stuff, Stewart. I wish nasa could pick them all.

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