In news seen as a big win for the company that was the sole loser during the competition for the coveted NASA contract to transport US astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS, see end note), Sierra Nevada Corp. (Louisville, CO, US) was recently awarded a contract from NASA to launch cargo resupply missions to the ISS. Sierra Nevada will join Orbital ATK (Dulles, VA, US) and SpaceX (Hawthorne, CA, US) to continue building on the initial resupply partnerships.
These Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts are designed to obtain cargo delivery services to the space station, carry out disposal of unneeded cargo, and return of research samples and other cargo from the station back to NASA facilities on the ground.
While the maximum potential value of all contracts is US$14 billion from 2016 through 2024, NASA will order missions as needed, and the total prices paid under the contract will depend on which mission types are specified.
Sierra Nevada has developed the winged, composites-intensive Dream Chaser spacecraft for low-G-force atmospheric re-entry and the ability to land horizontally on a runway. It’s folding-wing design reportedly allows the Dream Chaser spacecraft to fit inside existing launch vehicle fairings, making it compatible with a diverse suite of rockets and assuring ready access to space orbit.
The contracts, which begin upon award, guarantee a minimum of six cargo resupply missions from each provider. The contracts also include funding for ISS integration, flight support equipment, special tasks and studies, and NASA requirement changes.
Selecting multiple providers assures access to ISS so crewmembers can continue to conduct the vital research of the National Lab. Awarding multiple contracts provides more options and reduces risk through a variety of launch options and mission types, providing the ISS program a robust portfolio of cargo services that will be necessary to maximize the utility of the station.
NASA has not yet ordered any missions, but each will require complex preparation and several years of lead time. Discussions and engineering assessments will begin soon, leading to integration activities later this year to ensure all space station requirements are met, with the first missions beginning in late 2019.
“These resupply flights will be conducted in parallel with our Commercial Crew Program providers’ flights that enable addition of a seventh astronaut to the International Space Station. This will double the amount of crew time to conduct research,” says Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the ISS Program. “These missions will be vital for delivering the experiments and investigations that will enable NASA and our partners to continue this important research.”