NASA’s ISS Commercial Resupply Contract Holds Transformative Potential


On September 26, NASA released its Commercial Resupply Services 2 Request for Proposal in solicitation for continued cargo delivery to and from the International Space Station from 2017 through 2020, with possible extensions to 2024.

Seeking to build on the unqualified success of the COTS and CRS-1 programs which have give rise to the LEO commercial delivery capacity which has a fifth SpaceX Dragon berthed to ISS at the moment, and a third OSC Cygnus on deck for an October launch, the new contract calls for providers to increase the maximum pressurized payload to between 2,500 and 5,000 kg, as well as increasing the minimum per flight return capacity.  The new requirements are part of an effort to reduce the Visiting Vehicle traffic at the space station from 14-15 per year to 10-11 per year in order to conserve astronaut time for research. Other factors are the increased demands from adding a 7th full time crew member once American Commercial Crew providers come on line, as well as making up for the absence of the European Space Agency’s ATV, which is currently docked at ISS for the final time.

Throughout the pre-bid process, NASA has indicated that although pricing is critical, so too is an ability to maintain flexibility as well as launch on time. The latter requirement is backed up by a provision which insists a provider be able to conduct launch attempts on two of any three consecutive days of any given launch window. Reflecting increased dependence on U.S. commercial providers, the space agency is also requiring a two month Launch on Need capability in case another provider is unable to perform.

Beyond meeting NASA’s immediate requirements, which call for a total of either four or five flights per year (along with 2 Crew flights which will also carry limited quantities of cargo) the new CRS contract offers the potential to promote significant, and possibly even transformational progress in launch and cargo delivery capabilities. The enabling mechanism is an on-ramp provision and qualification procedure for new providers.

At the moment, SpaceX is clearly in the best condition to take home an early award due in part to a combination of low costs and established performance, as well as the simple fact that it is the only provider with the control of its supply chain and clarity of vision in its launch vehicle.  Orbital Sciences has yet to announce what it will do to replace the Antares when the current supply of Russian built engines runs out, and United Launch Alliance recently announced a new engine joint venture with Blue Origin, but did not disclose details of the launch vehicle it might power.

At the same time, NASA has made a point of reminding potential vendors that systems depending on outsourced and politically vulnerable hardware will be subject to increased scrutiny.  An extension of the Station’s life to 2024 however, would provide multiple companies with the time needed to introduce and qualify new systems, as well as a six flight award minimum in which to partially recover costs.  Also encouraging, in response to a vendor Q &A session, NASA did not rule out the potential re-use of cargo delivery craft, opening the door for a new chapter in the steadily evolving arena of commercial delivery to LEO.

While some providers may necessarily be working on new launch vehicles, at least one, SpaceX, will find in the new contract, the opportunity to either continue developing first, and perhaps even second stage re-usability, or even incorporate the capacity in its own on-ramp provision for a subsequent bid.

The contract also Sierra Nevada Corporation a second chance for the Dream Chaser spaceplane, assuming its GAO protest over the Commercial Crew decision in favor of SpaceX and Boeing is ultimately denied.  Based on statements made as part of the protest that its entry was considerably less expensive than one of the other entrants, obviously Boeing, Dream Chaser might have an edge, particularly considering the fact that NASA specified Accelerated Cargo Return, with experiment handover to the agency within 3 to 6 hours after landing as an optional category. One potential pitfall for SNC however, is that designed to dock with, rather than be berthed to ISS, Dream Chaser’s cargo capacity would be limited by the smaller access aperture  of the Station’s docking ports.

Proposals are due November 15, and the award announcements should come in May 2015.

NASA Press Release:

RELEASE 14-264
NASA Expands Commercial Space Program, Requests Proposals for Second Round of Cargo Resupply Contracts for International Space Station

On the heels of awarding groundbreaking contracts to U.S. commercial space companies to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA has released a request for proposals (RFP) for the next round of contracts for private-sector companies to deliver experiments and supplies to the orbiting laboratory.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 RFP, NASA intends to award contracts with one or more companies for six or more flights per contract. As with current resupply flights, these missions would launch from U.S. spaceports, and the contracted services would include logistical and research cargo delivery and return to and from the space station through fiscal year 2020, with the option to purchase additional launches through 2024.

Earlier this year, the Obama Administration decided to extend the life of the International Space Station until at least 2024.

The ability to continue commercial deliveries to the station is critical to continuing the use of the station as a platform for discovery that improves life on Earth, expands the commercial use of low-Earth orbit, and helps advance America’s journey to Mars through high-quality scientific research and technology development.

“The International Space Station is vital to the United States’ exploration efforts, a laboratory in orbit where we can work off the Earth, for the Earth,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations and NASA Headquarters. “To push beyond low-Earth orbit and on to Mars, we rely on American industry to keep the station supplied through cargo deliveries.”

This RFP is open to companies able to demonstrate safe, reliable launch and rendezvous capabilities with the station. The contract will fulfill NASA’s need to procure cargo delivery services for pressurized and unpressurized cargo delivery, disposal, return, or any combination, to the space station using U.S. commercial carriers after the initial Commercial Resupply Service contracts conclude.

The goal of the RFP is to foster a full and open competition that provides the most complete set of services, providing the best value to American taxpayers. Proposals are due Nov. 14. The awarded contracts will be firm-fixed price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite quantity. NASA anticipates making a selection in May 2015.

A little more than one year after the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA returned Space Station cargo resupply missions to the U.S. under two contracts — one with Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, and one with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California. At the time of award, NASA ordered eight flights valued at about $1.9 billion from Orbital and 12 flights valued at about $1.6 billion from SpaceX through December 2016. SpaceX has completed three of the contracted delivery missions with a fourth currently underway, and Orbital has completed two.

On Sept. 16, NASA announced U.S. astronauts once again will travel to and from the International Space Station from the United States on American spacecraft under groundbreaking commercial contracts. The agency unveiled its selection of Boeing and SpaceX to transport U.S. crews to and from the space station using their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, with a goal of ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia in 2017.

For more information about the Commercial Resupply Services 2 competition and to see the complete RFP, visit:


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4 Comments on "NASA’s ISS Commercial Resupply Contract Holds Transformative Potential"

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  1. Kudos on the site. Really well written, comprehensive space coverage. Enjoy the daily emails as well.

  2. An additional thought- one wonders whether its is possible/practical/affordable to change the design of the DreamChaser to a berth rather than docked configuration. Is a space plane shape even possible for the clearances/tolerances of the berth areas? If not, then it’s simple math- will the Dock hatch be enough to win a contract? What is so large that it can’t make it through- and can those items be transported on a Dragon? Also would the Dream Chaser still be piloted at all or would this become a remote control/drone/robot thing similar to x-37?

    • I’m pretty sure that if SNC wants to pursue this contract, DreamChaser would need to be redesigned for robotic piloting. Cargo spacecraft remain docked with the ISS for weeks at a time, and there is simply no provision for having an extra person on board just to fly the DreamChaser back to the ground.

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