After media speculation that an announcement could have been forthcoming on Thursday, NASA’s oft delayed Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2) contract has been pushed back once again. The new deadline, according to the story in Space News, is now no later than January 30th, 2016, and comes because the space agency needed “to allow additional time for the Government to assess proposals.”
If nothing else, NASA has at least narrowed the list down to three vendors, as the same story also notes that Boeing has stated that its CST-100 has been dropped from consideration.
While NASA is declining to add much more in the way of further information due to blackout restrictions, the news that Boeing has been bumped helps to build the case that Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane has still got some air under its non-wings. Again, from Space News:
“Sierra Nevada Corp. spokeswoman Krystal Scordo said Nov. 5 that the company has been notified by NASA that it is still being considered for a contract. NASA, she said, “has decided to re-open discussions with offerors in the competitive range for NASA’s CRS-2 contract,” and that Sierra Nevada was “selected to re-open discussions regarding its CRS-2 proposal.”
The key words here are “”re-open” and “competitive range,” a usage which would appear to suggest that Boeing’s pricing may have taken NASA officials by surprise, thus spurring the agency to take another look at SNC.
As it stands now, a wider, but still messy split between the companies intimately tied to the ostensible push into deeper space with SLS/Orion, and those which are for the moment supporting operations in LEO through ISS is being played out between two radically different NASA contracting approaches.
While Boeing will continue to play an important role in ISS, both through Commercial Crew as well as its annual support contract for the Station itself, and Lockheed Martin is a key partner in Dream Chaser, and together they own United Launch Alliance, the fact that both now face a diminished role in the considerable number of re-supply missions to ISS in coming years should not be discounted. When the money gets tight, it is not much of a stretch to imagine both pointing out that despite achieving a remarkable 15 years of continuous occupation as of this week, the lack of a “killer app” or breakthrough discovery attributable to ISS means it is time to kill the whole thing. Considering the indispensable part ISS and COTS/CRS/Commercial Crew have played in the rise of SpaceX, it may be a powerful compulsion indeed.
Standing in the middle is Orbital ATK, which builds the solid rocket boosters for SLS, and would very much like to see its Cygnus cargo vessel become the basis for deep space supply and habitation modules without which the mega booster and its Orion spacecraft will be virtually useless. Today’s announcement may help build the case for just such a future, leaving no doubt that unless it is improbably eliminated in favor of liquid fueled boosters for a future version of SLS, Orbital ATK is already holding a boarding pass for NASA’s “Journey to Mars.”
With Dream Chaser obviously limited to LEO operations and SpaceX keeping its own deep space plans under wraps, at least for the time being, look for the annual food fight between supporters of SLS/Orion and ISS/Commercial space to get quite a bit uglier in the very near future.