NASA announces second round of commercial cargo contracts

CBS News

In the wake of new contracts for commercial space taxis, NASA Friday announced a new competition for a second round of contracts to build and launch unpiloted spacecraft to deliver cargo and supplies to the International Space Station.

The Commercial Resupply Services 2 request for proposals announces NASA's intention to award contracts to one or more companies for at least six space station cargo flights, per contract, through 2020 with an option for additional flights through 2024.

SpaceX already holds a $1.6 billion contract for 12 resupply missions using the company's Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon cargo craft to deliver some 44,000 pounds of cargo to the orbiting laboratory. The company launched its fourth operational resupply mission this past Sunday with the fifth in the series on tap in early December.

Orbital Sciences Corp. holds a similar $1.9 billion contract for eight flights of its Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo ship to deliver 20 tons of supplies. Orbital has carried out two operational resupply flights and plans to launch its third Oct. 20.

Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences presumably will compete for CRS-2 contracts, along with other possible entrants.

"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," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of space operations, said in the agency's statement. "To push beyond low-Earth orbit and on to Mars, we rely on American industry to keep the station supplied through cargo deliveries."

NASA hopes to operate the space station through 2024 and keeping the outpost supplied in the wake of the space shuttle's retirement in 2011 is a major challenge. Up to now, supplies have been delivered by Russian Progress supply ships, cargo craft built by Japan and the European Space Agency and more recently, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences,

But ESA launched its fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle on July 29 and Japan has not indicated how long it plans to support space station operations with its HTV cargo ship. Only two more HTVs are on the near-term schedule, with one flight planned for next summer and the second in 2016.

The CRS-2 request for proposals follows NASA's Sept. 16 announcement that Boeing and SpaceX will share $6.8 billion in contracts to develop commercial crew ferry craft to carry astronauts to and from the space station. NASA currently relies on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew ferry services, paying more than $80 million a seat under the latest contract with Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency.

The latest flight in the series was launched Thursday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Despite problems with a balky solar panel, the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft successfully docked with the space station six hours after launch, bringing two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut to the outpost and boosting the lab's crew back to six.