SpaceX Scores a NASA Contract to Resupply the Space Station

By Eliza Strickland | December 31, 2008 8:35 am

SpaceX testIn a vote of confidence for the fledgling commercial space industry, NASA has awarded contracts that could total $3.5 billion to two companies that plan to build rockets and ferry supplies to the International Space Station. The companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, could begin launches as soon as 2010 to help fill the gap between the space shuttle‘s expected retirement and the introduction of NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Ares I. The companies beat out traditional NASA contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to snag the contracts.

Experts say that giving a contract to the young company SpaceX is a particularly bold bet. SpaceX, the plan’s linchpin because it is intended to begin the service, carries a relatively short pedigree as a government contractor and can point to only one successful launch, after three failures, of a smaller version of its Falcon rocket intended to supply the space station. Orbital Sciences is an established, midsize aerospace contractor but lacks a proven track record for the revamped version of the Taurus rocket it will use to supply the station [The Wall Street Journal, subscription required].

In a break with past practice the contractors won’t just build the rockets, they’ll also manage the cargo resupply missions themselves. NASA is also giving the companies more autonomy during the development of their rockets. Instead of operating as a traditional NASA-run program — in which the agency determines what will be built, pays for it and then operates the systems — Tuesday’s decision calls for the contractors to develop and largely pay for a new generation of rockets and cargo modules to service the space station. The bulk of the money, payable over eight years, won’t begin to flow until the companies meet design and performance milestones [The Wall Street Journal, subscription required].

For SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk, the cargo transport contract is a step towards his goal of using the company’s rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station, and beyond. Mr. Musk said his company was an expression of his deep belief that leaving Earth was the next phase of human existence. “The thing that is important to the future of life itself is having a second planet where life can be sustained and grow,” he said. His cargo rockets have been designed from the start to meet NASA’s requirements for human spaceflight, including the 40 percent margin of safety that NASA demands on human-rated launching vehicles [The New York Times]. However, at this point NASA isn’t willing to rely on private space companies for critical missions involving astronauts, and will instead send NASA astronauts to the station aboard Russian spacecraft for a few years following the space shuttle’s retirement.

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Image: SpaceX

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Larian LeQuella

    Hopefully one day we’ll all look back at NASA and laugh at how poorly the government tried to run a commercial industry like space…

  • Fred K

    I think the prior comment does a disservice to NASA…if there is going to be a commercial space industry, it is thanks to NASA’s contributions, not despite them. NASA proved that interplanetary travel is possible, not to mention footing the bill for fundamental research that has paid dividends for academic and commercial applications alike. Money can always be spent more wisely, but comparatively NASA has accomplished a lot with budgets that are always being reduced; if we compare the amount of money invested in NASA over 4 decades and the return to society vs. other investments like the Iraq War, mortgage bailouts, etc., I think we’ll find NASA to be one of our better investments. I think it is one of the more beneficial facets of government to fund the basic research that can spawn new industries…look at how the Internet evolved from DARPA and how much wealth that has created…the same will be true for space, as clearly the potential for space commerce is so vast that it requires a larger community of players than NASA to tap that potential, again much like the Internet. The complexity of moving goods and people safely through space is also much greater than many other challenges. So let’s not disrespect NASA, as they brought us to this party.

  • Dennis

    God lord. When will we come up with something better than a controlled explosion (many times uncontrolled…) to get into space?
    The Japanese are focused on a space elevator. If they actually accomplish it, NASA and all this money will have been a big waste.
    How about electromagnetic launch with rocket assist? The technology has gotten to the point where it will be on the next aircraft carrier…
    Granted, we are talking about 0-130MPH, but an aircraft carrier has size restrictions. The side of a mountain does not…
    NASA has gotten to the point where they are so moribund they are contracting out their rockets.
    Now all they need to do is contract out technological development and we may actually find a way to get into space cheap….


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