NASA selected three companies for the next International Space Station resupply contract

Artistic concept of the Dream Chaser Cargo System docked with the International Space Station (Image courtesy Sierra Nevada Corporation. All rights reserved)
Artistic concept of the Dream Chaser Cargo System docked with the International Space Station (Image courtesy Sierra Nevada Corporation. All rights reserved)

NASA announced the companies selected for the new contracts for cargo transport to the International Space Station. This is the second selection so the agency calls them CRS-2 (Commercial Resupply Services 2) and concern the transport of supplies as well as the disposal of waste or otherwise of what is no longer needed and the transport of cargo from the Station to return it to NASA. This time the agency selected three companies reneweing the contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK and also selecting Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The new contract isn’t merely a repetition of the old one extended to a third company but contains various innovations that result from the experience gained by NASA during these years of working with private companies. The agency decided from the beginning to choose more than one company to have flexibility in the use of various spacecraft and redundancy in case of problems. The mishaps suggested the inclusion of a third company among the operators but this is only the most noticeable news.

The first contract contemplated a certain amount of cargo to carry in terms of metric tons so the number of missions derived from the spacecraft’s capacity. For the CRS-2 contract NASA decided to order the missions and each chosen company will perform at least six missions. Following the mishaps, the new contract requires insurance to cover damage to government property during the various phases of the missions.

The new CRS-2 contract also concerns other more technical elements that concerns the spacecraft’s transport possibilities. The missions under the new contract include new options concerning the delivery (food, hardware, scientific experiments), the return and the disposal of gargo both non-pressurized and pressurized.

Each mission may be different so NASA didn’t provide information on individual costs, merely indicating a potential total amount of $14 billion. This total value starts this year, meanin that it includes the remaining missions under the CRS contract in place, and arrives up to 2024.

So far, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft was the only one able to bring back to Earth cargo such as scientific experiments and various samples to be analyzed beyond the capabilities of the instruments available on the International Space Station. Elon Musk’s company will keep on developing its spacecraft, which in future will be able to dock directly to the ISS instead of being captured by the robotic arm. Another possible innovation consists in landing on the ground using its thrusters to brake instead of splashing down in the ocean. However, this is a project that still requires more a rather long time for its development.

Orbital ATK will keep on using its Cygnus spacecraft, which will be used to dispose of waste and whatever is no longer needed on the International Space Station. The company is developing a new version of its Antares rocket but will make at least one more launch using the Atlas V.

The big news is Sierra Nevada Corporation with its Dream Chaser, a shuttle based on an old NASA project called the HL-20. The company is developing various versions of its spacecraft with varying sizes and characteristics for different markets and the one chosen for the CRS-2 contract is called the Dream Chaser Cargo System.

So far NASA seemed to not want to use a shuttle anymore because its Space Shuttle missions proved very expensive. The Dream Chaser can be launched on a regular rocket, the Atlas V, and the original design was upgraded to make the spacecraft truly reusable and contain costs.

The big advantage of the shuttle is that it can land like an airplane. The plan is to use the runway at the Kennedy Space Center but the Dream Chaser could land in an airport. The spacecraft can bring back to Earth science experiments and biological samples that could be taken very quickly to be delivered to the laboratories.

With the CRS-2 contract, NASA continues the new policy of working with private companies to develop American spacecraft. This will open the low Earth orbit to new business opportunities in a frontier that is not only scientific anymore but also commercial.

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