Nearly two decades after NASA, China and Europe considered Ars Technica commercial cargo plans

SpaceX launches its 28th resupply mission to the International Space Station on Monday, June 5, 2023.

SpaceX launches its 28th resupply mission to the International Space Station on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Zoom in / SpaceX launches its 28th resupply mission to the International Space Station on Monday, June 5, 2023.


Just in the last month, both the European and Chinese space agencies launched a call for private companies to develop the capability to deliver cargo to space stations in low Earth orbit.

On May 11, the European Space Agency announced a “Commercial Cargo Transport Initiative” that would see one or more suppliers develop the capability to deliver 2 tonnes to the International Space Station by 2028 and be able to bring back safely 1 ton on Earth. Each proponent company must procure its own rocket for a demonstration mission.

Less than a week later, on May 16, the China Manned Space Engineering Office announced a “Low-Cost Cargo Transport System” plan to hire private companies to deliver cargo to its Tiangong space station. Eligible suppliers must be capable of delivering at least 1.8 tonnes into low Earth orbit. The Chinese spacecraft does not need to return cargo but should be able to dispose of 2 tons. China’s space agency said it would pay no more than $17.2 million per ton of cargo delivered.

These initiatives are significant because they represent recognition by two very different major space agencies that NASA’s approach to commercial space over the past two decades has been successful in spurring a new space industry. However, each of these initiatives may ultimately struggle.

What did NASA do

In 2005, under the leadership of Administrator Mike Griffin, NASA said it would use private companies to deliver cargo to the International Space Station following the retirement of the Space Shuttle. During the initial phase of this program, formally called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, NASA supported SpaceX with a total of $396 million in development funding and Orbital Sciences with $288 million.

During this initial phase of the program, a small team of NASA engineers worked with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, providing technical advice and other support. At the same time, NASA officials have been careful to let companies innovate and design their own vehicles.

The program was mutually beneficial. By the end of the development program, NASA had two vehicles, SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon and Orbital’s Cygnus, capable of delivering cargo to the space station for a fraction of the price it would have paid using a traditional contracting method. And in turn, funding from NASA has allowed the US commercial space industry to leapfrog.

“We wouldn’t be the company we are today without NASA’s support,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in NASA’s official report on the COTS program in 2014. “We’d probably be limping, trying to change the world, but limping instead of run”.

Following this development program, both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences moved into the operational phase of the program, known as Commercial Resupply Services. At this stage, NASA purchased refueling missions from the companies. On Monday, for example, SpaceX successfully launched its 28th resupply mission to the space station.

Reasons for concern

So why can’t Europe and China replicate this success? They can, of course. But there are some potential pitfalls.

Chief among these concerns is that both the European Space Agency and China’s space agency appear to be skipping the “COTS” phase of the program, during which NASA shared its expertise and provided a significant amount of cash.

Conversely, for the initial phase of its programme, the European Space Agency is making available a total of €2 million to support two companies with preliminary design and fundraising activities. (See a list of potential bidders.) The benefit of this is clear: It allows ESA to launch a commercial cargo program well ahead of its next “ministerial” meeting in 2025, when it can ask member nations for more significant funding to support the initiative load.

But there is also a serious drawback. While there may be more funding in the second round, the European Space Agency is now counting on private companies to raise funds, develop test articles and procure an independent launch for a 2028 demonstration mission. This will easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars, all to have the opportunity to compete for future contracts for the supply of goods.

This looks like a really steep hill for European companies to climb. Certainly, no company is likely to be ready by 2028. The European Space Agency seems to recognize this, as it is telling companies it would like cargo delivery services for the International Space Station or private stations arriving later.

Be patient

There is less information on China’s plan, but it appears the country is paying suppliers by the ton. While there will no doubt be transfers of technology and other assistance from the Chinese government to its private companies, the proposed funding amount, $17 million per ton, seems woefully inadequate for the required service. Developing, testing and flying cargo spacecraft is both difficult and expensive.

For example, in its initial services contract with SpaceX, NASA paid $133 million per mission to bring a couple tons of cargo to the International Space Station. That contract was awarded in late 2008. Adjusting for inflation, the award’s value today would be approximately $190 million. China, therefore, is proposing to pay its suppliers less than a fifth of the value of what NASA paid SpaceX and potentially without a COTS-like precursor program.

NASA’s commercial cargo program was ultimately successful because it chose good companies, invested heavily early on, and was able to provide technical expertise when needed. Even so, since the announcement of the COTS program, it has taken nearly seven years for the first supply ship to dock with the space station.

Hopefully, planners in Europe and China are just as patient.

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NASA Inspector General Blames Rocket Engine Contract Mishandling For Artemis Moon Program Problems

NASA Inspector General Blames Rocket Engine Contract Mishandling For Artemis Moon Program Problems

NASA Inspector General Blames Rocket Engine Contract Mishandling For Artemis Moon Program Problems

The NASA Space Launch System (SLS).

Image credit: NASA.

NASA’s Artemis Moon program is six years behind schedule and over budget by at least $6 billion due to the space agency’s mismanagement of rocket engine contracts.

That’s according to the findings of a new report released May 25 by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which investigates NASA’s programs to prevent waste and fraud. OIG audited NASA contracts to purchase powerful RS-25 rocket motors and boosters for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which finally made its first test flight in November after four years of delays .

That flight also propelled an uncrewed Orion spacecraft en route to the Moon and back on the first mission of the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the lunar surface by 2025 and establish a long-term presence there by 2028. ‘SLS is a keystone of the Artemis program architecture.

But the Artemis program comes at a high cost. So far, the program has cost about $93 billion in total from its inception in 2012 through fiscal 2025, 26 percent ($23.8 billion) of which is due to the SLS rocket. And the whole project might have gone ahead if not for mismanagement, according to the OIG report Congress originally instructed NASA to launch the first SLS flight by 2016.

If $93 billion seems like a lot to pay for a program six years late, it’s because it’s a lot, says Laura Forczyk, a space industry consultant and founder of the company Astralytical.

But “I wouldn’t say this is particularly surprising,” she said SpaceRef. “Reports have been coming out for years about how late everything is, including these RS-25 engines, and how much they cost overdue.”

NASA management agreed to implement a number of OIG recommendations to reduce costs and improve forward efficiency, but ultimately Forczyk suggested that the responsibility lies with whoever controls the purse strings, not NASA or NASA. ‘OIG, but Congress.

The SLS is a super heavy rocket capable of delivering 27 tons of payload to the Moon in its current configuration (subsequent Artemis missions will use more powerful variants). To get that mass off the ground, SLS requires two solid-fuel rocket thrusters and four RS-25 liquid hydrogen-liquid-oxygen engines per launch.

That configuration may seem reminiscent of the Space Shuttle, which would make sense because the SLS uses shuttle technology: The RS-25 engines are the same ones used for the shuttle, and leftover steel casings from the shuttle were used in the thrusters. solid rocket. Naturally, both components have since been upgraded: NASA contracted Aerojet Rocketdyne to upgrade the engines, while Northrop Grumman made changes to the steel casings.

“The idea was to refurbish the space shuttle’s main engines which would cost less than designing and building brand new engines,” Forczyk said. “It didn’t happen that way.”

So far, Aerojet Rocketdyne has completed only five of 16 RS-25 engine adaptations contracted by NASA, and unforeseen technical difficulties have also increased the costs of booster rocket development, according to OIG’s Artemis audit. The retrofits and production of engines and boosters were expected to cost NASA about $7 billion over 14 years, according to the report, but will now cost at least $13.1 billion over 25 years.

NASA incurred these higher costs due to the type of contract it signed with the two companies. NASA has cost-plus (rather than fixed-cost) contracts with Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne. In a fixed cost contract, a bidder agrees to deliver the goods at a set price and to incur any costs beyond that amount.

“Whereas with the cost-plus, the government pays for the additional cost overruns,” Forczyk explained. “It’s really meant for cutting-edge technology where they don’t have a good estimate from the outset of what the total cost is going to be.”

NASA recently announced a $3.4 billion fixed-cost contract with Blue Origin to build a lunar landing vehicle for the Artemis V mission, as well as NASA’s $4.2 billion Commercial Crew contract with Boeing to build the Strainer spacecraft for flights to and from the ISS has been resolved. price, a fact that could cause serious headaches for Boeing as the Starliner program languishes due to technical issues that have caused further delays through June 1.

To get the Artemis program back on track, the OIG issued eight recommendations to NASA management. The first is to try to roll over the Aerojet Rocketdyne contract for the production of 18 new RS-25 engines on fixed price terms. The report also recommends to NASA:

  1. Identify the procurement needs and resources available to address staffing shortages at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
  2. Ensure Marshall officers follow best practices in establishing and maintaining internal controls related to REAs, tax laws, and appropriate internal and external engagement.
  3. Ensure proper separation of program actions and procurements and compliance with federal requirements for the use of letter contracts, proper definition, overpayments, and duplicate award fee payments for scope and modified contracts.
  4. Updates RS-25 production cost estimates per engine to include investments to restart production.
  5. Review and update [the rocket booster production and operations contract] scope of work and technical requirements needed to complete the respective performance periods.
  6. Revision [the rocket booster production and operations contract] definition to ensure proper settlement of funds paid under the letter agreement.
  7. Develop separate no-fee contract line for completion of 11 unfinished heritage RS-25 fit engines.

NASA management “agreed with Recommendations 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7, and partially agreed with Recommendations 4, 5 and 8,” the OIG wrote in the report, “and thus the recommendations were resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.”

But it remains to be seen how serious NASA is about making serious changes to the SLS program. Forczyk emphasized that the SLS contract is set up to distribute federal funding to important districts to support members of Congress, not to produce a rocket as efficiently as possible. And as long as those congressmen support Artemis and SLS, there’s little incentive to change, and the OIG report probably won’t make much difference to Artemis.

“This is business as usual. This will not be seen by Congress as a justification for changing the program at this point,” Froczyk said SpaceRef. “It could be used as a justification to change the schedule at a later date if SLS falls out of favor, but at this point it’s still so politically popular that this will just be accepted as fact.”

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NASA message in a bottle campaign: sign the poem that will fly aboard the Europa Clipper

Sign the poem that will fly aboard NASA's Europa Clipper

Sign the poem that will fly aboard NASA's Europa Clipper

The Message in a Bottle campaign offers everyone the opportunity to have their name stamped on a microchip featuring US poet laureate Ada Limns In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa. The chip will travel aboard NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter and its moon Europa. Credit: NASA

Jupiters moon Europa on the Europa Clipper mission in 2024. The campaign, designed to spark global interest in space exploration, also allows participants to create personalized souvenirs and encourages social media engagement.

Members of the public are invited to add their names to an original poem dedicated to NASAs Europa Clipper mission before the spacecraft begins its journey to Jupiters moon Europa in October 2024. The poem and the names will be like a message in a bottle, traveling billions of miles as the mission investigates whether the ocean thought to lie beneath Europas icy crust could support life.

As part of the Message in a Bottle campaign, names received before 11:59 p.m. EST, December 31, 2023, will be stenciled onto a microchip, along with the poem, written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limn and titled In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.

To sign, read the poem, and hear Limn recite the poem in an animated video, go to:

The site also enables participants to create and download a customizable souvenir an illustration of your name on a message in a bottle against a rendering of Europa and Jupiter to commemorate the experience. Participants are encouraged to share their enthusiasm on social media using the hashtag #SendYourName.

Message in a Bottle is the perfect convergence of science, art, and technology, and we are excited to share with the world the opportunity to be a part of Europa Clippers journey, said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASAs Science Mission Directorate in Washington. I just love the thought that our names will be traveling across our solar system aboard the radiation-tolerant spacecraft that seeks to unlock the secrets of Jupiters frozen moon.

Europa Mission Spacecraft Artist's Rendering

Artists rendering of NASAs Europa Clipper spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Message in a Bottle campaign is similar to other NASA projects that have enabled tens of millions of people to send their names to ride along with Artemis I and several Mars spacecraft. It draws from the agencys long tradition of shipping inspirational messages on spacecraft that have explored our solar system and beyond. In the vein of NASAs Voyagers Golden Record, which sent a time capsule of sounds and images to communicate the diversity of life and culture on Earth, the program aims to spark the imagination of people around the world.

Inspiration is what fueled the people who developed this flagship mission and who hand-crafted the largest spacecraft NASA has sent to explore the solar system. Its what drives humanity to ask the big questions that this mission will contribute to, said Laurie Leshin, director of NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which leads the development of Europa Clipper. Inspiration is riding along with every single name that will be making the journey to Europa.

Europa Clipper currently is being assembled, on camera, at JPL. Set to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the spacecraft will travel 1.8 billion miles (2.6 billion kilometers) to reach the Jupiter system, where it will arrive in 2030. As it orbits Jupiter and flies by Europa about 50 times, it will log another half-billion miles (800,000 kilometers) while a suite of science instruments gathers data on the subsurface ocean, the ice crust, and the moons atmosphere.

In January, Limn visited JPL to see the spacecraft and learn more about the mission. She was appointed 24th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in 2022 and reappointed for a second, two-year term in April 2023. Limn was born in Sonoma, California, and is of Mexican ancestry. She is the author of several poetry collections, including The Hurting Kind and The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the nations official poet, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry a position that has existed since 1937. The Library of Congress is the worlds largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States and extensive materials from around the world both on site and online. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and home of the U.S. Copyright Office.

More About the Mission

The primary scientific goal of the Europa Clipper mission is to ascertain whether there might be locations beneath Europas surface that are capable of supporting life. The mission has three main objectives: comprehending the nature of the ice shell and the underlying ocean, understanding the moons composition, and studying its geology. These investigations into Europas intricate details will provide scientists with a clearer understanding of the potential for astrobiological life in worlds beyond Earth.

The management of the Europa Clipper mission is led by Caltech, based in Pasadena, California. Its partner for this project is the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) located in Laurel, Maryland, working on behalf of NASAs Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The main body of the spacecraft was designed jointly by APL, JPL, and NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center, based in Greenbelt, Maryland. The execution of program management for the Europa Clipper mission is carried out by the Planetary Missions Program Office, part of NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center, located in Huntsville, Alabama.

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