The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program

The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) was a NASA program, announced on January 18, 2006, to coordinate the delivery of crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) by private companies. It successfully flew all cargo demonstration flights by September 2013. NASA challenged the U.S. industry to establish capabilities and services that could open New Space markets and support the crew and cargo transportation needs of the International Space Station (ISS).

Unlike any previous NASA project, the proposed spacecraft are intended to be owned and financed primarily by the companies themselves and will be designed to serve both U.S. government agencies and commercial customers. NASA will contract for missions as its needs become clear. This is more challenging than existent commercial space transportation because it requires precision orbit insertion, rendezvous and possibly docking with another spacecraft.

On NASA’s website, we read: “The precursor studies for this project were initiated in February 2004 with the project formally commencing in October of 2005. Instead of flying payloads to the ISS solely on government and International Partner (IP) operated vehicles, NASA intends to spend $500 million through 2010 to finance the demonstration of orbital transportation service capabilities by commercial providers. NASA anticipates that commercial services to ISS will be necessary through at least 2015. In the future, space transportation services procurement may be expanded to orbital fuel depots and lunar surface deliveries should the first phase of COTS prove successful”.

COTS is related but separate from the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program (Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX). COTS relates to the development of the vehicles, whereas CRS to the actual deliveries. COTS involves a number of Space Act Agreements, with NASA providing milestone-based payments. COTS does not involve binding contracts (an agreement in writing between two or more individuals or entities in which a court can impose penalties in the event one party attempts to negate on his or her promise as set forth in the signed document). CRS on the other hand does involve legally binding contracts, which means the suppliers would be liable if they failed to perform. Finally, Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) is a related program, aimed specifically at developing crew rotation services. The NASA Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO: COTS, CRS, and CCDev), formally established in November 2005, represented the culmination of years, even decades, of initiatives to encourage the growth of the private spaceflight sector.

Abbreviated SAA, Space Act Agreements, which are involved in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, are a type of legal agreement specified in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (and subsequent congressional authorisations) that uniquely empowers NASA to work with any entity that enables fulfilment of the Administration’s mandate. ENACTMENT OF TITLE 51—NATIONAL AND COMMERCIAL SPACE PROGRAMS, Public Law 111–314 (111th Congress): “In the performance of its functions, the Administration is authorized, without regard to subsections (a) and (b) of section 3324 of title 31, to enter into and perform such contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other transactions as may be necessary in the conduct of its work and on such terms as it may deem appropriate, with any agency or instrumentality of the United States, or with any State, territory, or possession, or with any political subdivision thereof, or with any person, firm, association, corporation, or educational institution”. The Agency enters into SAAs with various partners to advance NASA mission and program objectives, including international cooperative space activities.

NASA signed agreements with SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), a reusable launch system firm originally based in Oklahoma, in 2006, but later terminated the agreement with RpK due to insufficient private funding. NASA then signed an agreement with Orbital Sciences in 2008. Independently, NASA awarded contracts for cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) in December 2008, to Orbital Sciences and SpaceX to utilise their COTS cargo vehicles. NASA’s Final Report on the Commercial Orbit Transportation Services program considers it an unqualified success and a model for future public-private collaboration.

History of the NASA COTS program

NASA explored a program for ISS services in the mid-1990s entitled Alt Access for Alternate Access. While NASA funded Alt Access no further than preliminary studies, this program convinced numerous entrepreneurs that ISS could emerge as a significant market opportunity. After years of keeping orbital transport for human spaceflight in-house, NASA concluded that firms in a free market could develop and operate such a system more efficiently and affordably than a government bureaucracy. “These landmark agreements are, truly, NASA’s most significant investment to date in attempting to spur the development of the commercial space industry” said Michael Griffin (NASA).

He added: “I believe that with the advent of the ISS, there will exist for the first time a strong, identifiable market for routine transportation service to and from LEO, and that this will be only the first step in what will be a huge opportunity for truly commercial space enterprise, inherent to the Vision for Space Exploration. I believe that the ISS provides a tremendous opportunity to promote commercial space ventures that will help us meet our exploration objectives and at the same time create new jobs and new industry.

The clearly identifiable market provided by the ISS is that for regular cargo delivery and return, and crew rotation, especially after we retire the shuttle in 2010, but earlier should the capability become available. We want to be able to buy these services from American industry to the fullest extent possible. We believe that when we engage the engine of competition, these services will be provided in a more cost-effective fashion than when the government has to do it.

To that end, we have established a commercial crew/cargo project office, and assigned to it the task of stimulating commercial enterprise in space by asking American entrepreneurs to provide innovative, cost effective commercial cargo and crew transportation services to the space station.

NASA does not have a preferred solution. Our requirements will be couched, to the maximum extent possible, in terms of performance objectives, not process. Process requirements which remain will reflect matters of fundamental safety of life and property, or other basic matters. It will not be government business as usual. If those of you in industry find it to be otherwise, I expect to hear from you on the matter”.

On August 18, 2006, NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) announced that SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) won Phase I of the COTS program. NASA planned to engage winners in funded Space Act Agreements through 2010. On November 8, 2006 RpK and ATK announced that ATK would become the lead contractor for the K-1. NASA terminated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with RpK in September 2007 after NASA warned RpK that it had failed to raise sufficient private funding by the July 31, 2007 deadline.

By June 18, 2007, NASA had signed separate non-reimbursable Space Act Agreements with four firms. These agreements included no financial support, however NASA agreed to share information to help the companies to develop their proposed vehicles. On February 19, 2008, the second round selection was made to Orbital Sciences Corporation, for the Cygnus spacecraft.

In May 2012, the SpaceX Dragon made headlines as it became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). In September 2013, NASA saw a second commercial partner, Orbital Sciences Corp., follow with its own resupply mission to the ISS. These successful missions represented the fruition of six years of intensive work executed under partnership agreements between NASA and the commercial space community; partnerships that both resulted in the availability of cost-effective cargo transportation services for the Agency, and the advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.

On May 22, 2012, William H. Gerstenmaier confirmed that NASA was no longer purchasing any cargo resupply services from Russia and would rely solely on the American CRS vehicles, the SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus; with the exception of a few vehicle-specific payloads delivered on the European ATV (the Automated Transfer Vehicle, originally Ariane Transfer Vehicle or ATV, was an expendable cargo spacecraft developed by the European Space Agency, used for space cargo transport from 2008 to 2014) and the Japanese HTV (the H-II Transfer Vehicle, also called Kounotori, is an expendable, automated cargo spacecraft used to resupply the Kibō Japanese Experiment Module and the International Space Station). The COTS program was successfully concluded in November 2013 after two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, designed, built and launched “a pair of new spacecraft on rockets that also were newly designed”.

Concluding remarks on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services

The year 1869 saw the completion of the first transcontinental railroad that allowed for continuous travel between America’s east and west coasts. A project that would not have been possible without the support of government bonds and land grants. In the first half of the 20th century, the 1925 Contract Air Mail Act (more commonly referred to as the Kelly Act) incentivised commercial aviation by allowing the U.S. Post Office to contract with private companies for mail delivery. This eventually led to the use of commercial aircraft for affordable passenger travel, as air travel transitioned from a dangerous, daredevil pastime to a routine operation.

These examples demonstrated the positive benefits of public-private partnerships for advancing U.S. goals and strengthening the American economy through investment in innovative technologies. More than fifty years after Alan B. Shepard’s historic spaceflight, visionaries in the aerospace community endeavoured to extend the same type of symbiosis to the realm of commercial space transportation.

Commercial companies have been involved in NASA programs as contractors since the Agency’s founding in 1958, but it was not until the 1980s that commercial advocates began to more actively seek turnover of routine space operations to the private sector. Multiple NASA programs laid the foundation for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, beginning with early efforts to privatise Space Shuttle and Space Station operations. Although not all these programs reached completion, the principles established for successful relationships with the private sector would become pillars of the Agency’s mission to develop commercially-available ISS transportation services.

NASA has recently suggested that space transportation services procurement may be expanded to orbital fuel depots (an orbital propellant depot is a cache of propellant that is placed in orbit around Earth or another body to allow spacecraft or the transfer stage of the spacecraft to be fuelled in outer space; it is one of the types of space resource depot that have been proposed for enabling infrastructure-based space exploration) and lunar surface deliveries should the first phase of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) prove successful.