Orbital, SpaceX win NASA contract

By Phil Plait | December 23, 2008 2:42 pm

Speaking of SpaceX, NASA just announced two HUGE awards for private contractors: $1.9 billion to Orbital Sciences, and $1.6 billion to SpaceX!

Wow. These contracts are for lifting supplies to the International Space Station, and are for at least 20 tons of uploaded mass each (Orbital is required to have 8 launches, and SpaceX 12). SpaceX can do that pretty easily with their new Falcon 9 (assuming all goes well with their maiden voyage of the new rocket sometime in 2009), which can lift 12 tons per launch. According to NASA, these two companies can provide all the ISS needs for supplies during the era between the Shuttle and Constellation, roughly 2010 through 2015. The contracts are good through 2016.

I’ll note that here is where government directly affects the private sector. That’s a lot of cash going to people who will use it to grow their industry, hire more highly-trained people, and maybe, just maybe, open up space to all of us in the coming years.

Very cool, and my congratulations to both companies!


Comments (30)

  1. “Pfft, all that money going up in space.” 😉

    This is definitely excellent news. I actually hope more of NASA’s operations get privatized, if only it means that more technology eventually reaches the general public. I’d love cheap sub-orbital high-altitude flights around the world (make dreary travel into a stellar sightseeing tour!) or affordable parabolic-trajectory microgravity simulations or whatever.

  2. Woohoo! A good friend of ours works with a company that contracts with SpaceX… I bet this made their day!

    It’s always good to see money being spent on something useful that will actually gainfully employ folks who do actual work… as opposed to oh, say, pricey bailouts for overpaid executives who were running failed banking and loan and investment companies…

  3. Mchl


    That’s some really good news!!!

  4. Cool! I am looking for a Program Management job for when I retire from the USAF. Level 3 APDP certification even! 😉

  5. @ Larian LeQuella,

    Also, Level 1 Goofing-off. 😉

  6. Steve A

    What’s really interesting about this is PlanetSpace was up for the contract as well. PlanetSpace is made up of the “big boys” of the industry, like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems, all of which are involved with Constellation and a host of other projects. Since the resupply contracts were not connected with COTS, it wasn’t a given that Orbital and SpaceX would get the contracts. NASA said the winner of this would be the companies that it judged could best deliver. Nice to see that others can enter the field.

  7. Is there any chance that NASA would contract SpaceX to carry astronauts to the space station during the gap between the shuttle and ares? The Falcon 9 heavy lifter looks like it could be enough to lift the astronauts up there: http://www.spacex.com/falcon9_heavy.php. And they could be carried in the Dragon capsule: http://www.spacex.com/dragon.php.

    It’s great to see a private company get involved in space travel. If only the prices were down to Earth…

  8. Max Fagin

    I don’t know. Isn’t this exactly how once productive companies like Lockheed and Grumman became the static giants that they are today? Expensive government contracts.

    I may be wrong, but I almost feel like companies like SpaceX and Orbital will do better if they aren’t spoiled the way that these other aerospace corps were in the 60’s and 70’s.

  9. @Max Fagin

    You have a very valid point, but this is a case which can be a good situation for everyone.
    The contracts of the ’60s and ’70s weren’t temporary. This is meant to fill a temporary void between the shuttle and Constellation. After Constellation gets going, these companies will have to fend for themselves again.
    In the immediate future they gain access to capital, and in the long term they are still independent.

  10. Gary Ansorge

    One should remember how government contracts were invaluable for the early airline industry, when the government provided certain minimal guaranteed income (for postal airmail) that helped keep the airlines afloat until they could make a profit carrying passengers.

    These contracts have the same effect today. More power to NASA for understanding that,,,

    GAry 7

  11. JoeSmithCA

    Does anyone know what kind of cargo vehicle they’re proposing to put on either companies launch vehicles? I couldn’t see any reference. I don’t see Orbital or SpaceX as anything other than launch vehicle providers (as the article states)

  12. The Mad LOLScientist

    Once again, all together now:

    SPACE IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS!!!1! 😀 =^..^=

  13. @JoeSmithCA:

    The Dragon on top of the Falcon 9 stack can provide up to 2500 kg of material or 7 passengers (http://www.spacex.com/dragon.php)

    Orbital does not have any specifics about a cargo vehicle, but they will be using the Taurus II (http://www.orbital.com/AdvancedSpace/AdvancedLaunchSystems/TaurusII/)

  14. Elmar_M

    Space X will use an uncrewed version of its Dragon capsule for ISS- cargo resupply. They are also proposing a crewed version for bringing crews to the ISS. I think both will be possible with the “normal” Falcon 9, no need for the Falcon 9 heavy.

  15. Steve A

    NASA isn’t focusing on the manned version of COTS, called COTS D, at this time. IIRC, the main reason is that even with the shuttle retiring, there is a way to get all the needed personnel into space, but not the cargo. It makes sense when you have limited funds. But, it hasn’t been ruled out forever, either.

  16. Do you realize that it means SpaceX gets to ship stuff into space at the price of 80 000$ per kilogram? That’s expensive!

  17. Autumn

    As one who identifies himself as frankly socialist in certain areas (feel free to assume you know which areas and to yell at me), I see this as an exemplary example of government getting a technology “over the hump” of profitability, and then encouraging private-sector growth. Getting things into orbit was simply not profitable when it was first seriously considered, and it would continue to be not profitable for a few decades.
    Because private-sector companies are (quite wisely) not interested in projects that have the potential to show profit in fifty or sixty years, the only option is the public-sector. When the tech begins to show the signs of profitability, the responsible thing to do is to encourage the public companies.

    Oh, and I believe that Lockheed-Martin developed a lot of innovative tech while beholden to government contracts, as did Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, and others (see: Raptor, all stealth technology,). Our modern military looks a heck of a lot different than the military of even ten years ago, and most of the major players remained the same.

  18. buck09

    I have a family member who works for one of these companies – on each launch, there’s an area on the rocket where everyone gets a small patch of space to write something. So far, the names of his whole family, including my wife kids, have had their names in outer space. I however, the biggest space-nerd in the family, have not. (Though I’ve been above complaining about it… well, until right now I guess :-)

    Thank you NASA. I now know that my name in space day will arrive.

    Yesterday, I also promised my two year old that when he was a grown-up, that we would go on a vacation to the moon together. I hope I can make good on that promise.

  19. Mchl

    Will anyone here venture a bet, that by 2015 SpaceX will be closer to sending man to the Moon than NASA will be? I’d say it’s even money 😛

  20. Quoting Mchl:

    Will anyone here venture a bet, that by 2015 SpaceX will be closer to sending man to the Moon than NASA will be?

    That doesn’t even make sense. I think you (and most people here) are mistakenly thinking that NASA launches rockets. Here’s the thing: NASA doesn’t launch rockets.

    Rockets are launched in the US by Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and United Space Alliance. Oh, and Orbital Sciences (woops, guess the new contract isn’t anything so new). There may be others I’m missing, but you get the idea: NASA purchases launch services from the private sector. So this isn’t like all of a sudden Hey! We’re gonna help the private sector get into rocketry! It’s what we’ve been doing for years.

    It’s nice to see SpaceX getting some money, because more competition is better, but this is just another NASA contract when you get down to it. At this point, basically the customers for launch services are NASA (a couple launches per year), DOD, and comm-sat folks. I don’t know the state of the comm market, but given the amount of optical fiber that’s been laid recently, and the reduction by half of the number of satellite radio companies, I doubt it’s very good. So the overall market is decent, but not exactly growing outrageously. SpaceX is not going to send a man to the moon on their own dime. If they do it, it will be as a supplier to some other customer with lots and lots of money. There’s really only one customer for moon trips right now, and that’s the gummint (i.e. NASA).

    I’ve said it before, but since I like to repeat repeat myself… Cheap access to space will not happen because of contracts to places like SpaceX; it will come from work done by materials scientists. Just like commercial aviation didn’t really take off (sorry) until the development of modern alloys.

    So yeah, good for SpaceX to provide some nimble competition the behemothic companies with most of the business now, but don’t expect them to get to space more than marginally cheaper than what we have now.

  21. Charles Boyer

    Now, they have to deliver.

    I wish them the best of luck, because if they fail, you can bet your last asset that companies like Boeing and Lockheed will dominate private space for the rest of your life.

    Actually, this is a good loss for the big boys in aerospace. Now that they have been told that business as usual is not going to be the usual way of doing things anymore, perhaps they will streamline their own businesses and leverage their expertise into truly faster, cheaper and more reliable.

  22. “# ioresult Says:

    Do you realize that it means SpaceX gets to ship stuff into space at the price of 80 000$ per kilogram? That’s expensive!”

    It currently costs about $1 billion per shuttle mission. Rockets are very, very expensive.

  23. DenverAstro

    As someone who has worked in the aerospace industry for te last 26 years, first for Hughes Aircraft and now Raytheon, I know that when one accepts a government space hardware contract, one has to accept all the regulations and requirements that go with those contracts. This is one of the reasons large corporations like mine have to charge SO much for these high tech products. It really is no joke. The government buries you with required paperwork and records such that for every engineer and scientist actually producing programming or hardware it requires 15 administrative people to keep them in business. And the education requirements of these companies ensure that only the best salaries have to be offered because if you dont, these graduates you need will jump over to Microsoft or some such company in a heartbeat.
    These new companies are going to be no different. Eventually they are going to get bogged down too. If you don’t believe me, read a book called Skunk Works by Ben Rich and take special note of the section where because of various government regulations and security requirements, the Skunk Works went from a lean and mean little shop where high tech aircraft were built on a shoestring, creating some of the most advanced aircraft technology ever seen, to a bloated mega-division with thousands of employees constantly running over budget. The same thing has happened to all of us.
    And there is something else to remember here. When our space program was getting started, we sent up a ton of practice missions from Mercury, to Gemini, to Apollo to learn all the various techniques needed to get to the moon. One of those critical techniques was docking of multiple spacecraft. Now I dont know from this post if SpaceX or Orbiltal are expected to simply supply the launch vehicles to NASA where the actual launch and other mission elements will be carried out by other more experienced personnel or are these companies being expected to do all this themselves. If it is the latter, where are they going to acquire the expertise to perform docking with the space station? This is a real question because I dont know the stipulations of their contracts. What exactly are they going to be expected to perform? Does anyone know this at this point?
    In the end, I think it is really cool that our government is spreading the wealth around a bit more and I am Very happy that it looks as though we may not be totally dependent on the Russians to launch our payloads for us in the next few years. I just hope these new companies can really deliver. If they can, I would be prepared to celebrate with the best of you. However, I have a bit of inside knowledge of how bloddy difficult this kind of stuff can be and how many million things can go wrong. I will have my fingers crossed for them both.
    By the way, Happy Holidays and a safe New Year to the whole BA gang!

  24. e=mc hammer

    “It currently costs about $1 billion per shuttle mission. Rockets are very, very expensive.”

    That’s using one form of accounting, the one that includes all the costs associated with the program and spreads them out on a per-mission basis.

    The consumables for each Shuttle mission are about $61 Million.

  25. e=mc hammer

    Interesting tidbit of info.

  26. orbiter

    “# ioresult Says:

    Do you realize that it means SpaceX gets to ship stuff into space at the price of 80 000$ per kilogram? That’s expensive!”

    Orbital can lift less and costs more per kg at over $103,000 per kilogram.
    Price per kg for launches are misleading for small payloads (2300 kg to ISS), it’s more prudent to consider per launch costs, it’s only helpful to compare price per kg for large payloads. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can lift more, is cheaper per launch, cheaper per kg and is debuting a full year sooner.


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