The Commercial Resupply Services contracts

For this new article on Space Law and the New Space, let’s have a look at the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts. In July 2011, the final American Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, came to a close when Atlantis touched down at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Little more than a year later, on October 8, 2012, SpaceX launched the first, operational CRS mission, SpX-1.

The U.S. Space Agency is looking to deepen its ties with commercial partners; the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) are a series of contracts awarded by NASA from 2008 to 2016 for delivery of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) on commercially operated spacecraft. Continuing its “commercial push”, NASA has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the next round of contracts under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts, private firms are tasked with sending cargo, experiments and crew supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The contracts that were awarded are described as being firm-fixed price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite quantity. “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. To push beyond low-Earth orbit and on to Mars, we rely on American industry to keep the station supplied through cargo deliveries” said William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA.

The first CRS contracts were signed in 2008 and awarded one and a half billion American dollars to SpaceX for twelve cargo transport missions and almost two billion American dollars to Orbital Sciences for eight missions, covering deliveries to 2016. In 2015, NASA extended the Phase 1 contracts by ordering an additional three resupply flights from SpaceX and one from Orbital Sciences. SpaceX uses the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft with Orbital Sciences employing the Antares booster and Cygnus cargo vessel. Under the CRS contract, both firms have not only been provided with revenue – but technical and logistical assistance as well. SpaceX began flying resupply missions in 2012, using Dragon cargo spacecraft launched on Falcon 9 rockets from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Orbital Sciences began deliveries in 2013 using Cygnus spacecraft launched on the Antares rocket from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wallops Island, Virginia.

A second phase of contracts (known as CRS2) were solicited and proposed in 2014. They were awarded in January 2016 to Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX, for cargo transport flights beginning in 2019 and expected to last through 2024.

History of the Commercial Resupply Services contracts

US public laws (an Act of Congress is a statute enacted by the United States Congress; it can either be a Public Law, relating to the general public, or a Private Law, relating to specific institutions or individuals) dating back to 1984 and 1990 have directed NASA to pursue commercial options for launching spaceflight missions, whenever such commercial offerings are available.

The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 is a United States federal law authored to facilitate the private enterprise of the commercialisation of space and space technology. The Act of Congress set forth the quest to acquire innovative equipment and services offered by entrepreneurial ventures from the information technology services, remote sensing technology, and telecommunications industries. The Act recognised the United States private sector as having the capability to develop commercial launch vehicles, orbital satellites, and operate private launch sites and services. The Act also assigned the duties of overseeing and coordinating commercial launches, issuing of licenses and permits, and promotion of safety standards to the Secretary of Department of Transportation. The H.R. 3942 legislation was enacted by the 98th Congressional session and signed by the 40th President of the United States Ronald Reagan on October 30, 1984.

On November 5, 1990, United States President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Launch Services Purchase Act. The Act, in a complete reversal of the earlier American Space Shuttle monopoly, specified that NASA is to purchase launch services for its primary payloads from commercial providers whenever such services are required in the course of its activities; this eventually lead to the NASA COTS program.

By the 2000s, other more specific Congressional authorisations began to fund explicit development of commercial options (the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS NASA program) for NASA, first for cargo services, and later for ISS crew transport services as well. The selection of the firms resupplying the International Space Station was publicly discussed by NASA on December 22, 2008. NASA announced the awarding of contracts for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation in a press conference on December 23, 2008. PlanetSpace, a privately funded Chicago-based rocket and space travel project founded by Geoff Sheerin, submitted a protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) after receiving a NASA briefing on the outcome of the award; on April 22, 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a legislative branch government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for the United States Congress (it is the supreme audit institution of the federal government of the United States of America), publicly released its decision to deny PlanetSpace’s protest.

The launch vehicles and cargo carriers were developed using Space Act Agreements under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. 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.

SpaceX CRS-16

SpaceX CRS-16, also known as SpX-16, is a Commercial Resupply Service mission to the International Space Station (ISS) launched on December 5, 2018 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission was contracted by NASA and flown by SpaceX. This CRS mission is the first with the Falcon 9 Block 5 (a two-stage-to-orbit medium lift launch vehicle).

NASA contracted for the CRS-16 mission from SpaceX and therefore determined the primary payload, date/time of launch, and orbital parameters for the Dragon space capsule. It carried the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar (GEDI), a NASA mission to measure how deforestation has contributed to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and the Robotic Refueling Mission 3 (spacecraft use consumables like propellant and coolant to perform key functions such as manoeuvring and maintaining critical equipment. Consumables, by their very nature, eventually run out. The technology to replenish these crucial supplies in space does not currently exist. NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission 3 or RRM3 will help change that paradigm, advancing satellite servicing capabilities and enabling long duration, deep space exploration) as external payloads.

Cygnus NG-11

Cygnus NG-11, previously known as CRS OA-11, is the twelfth flight of the Northrop Grumman robotic resupply spacecraft Cygnus and its eleventh flight to the International Space Station (ISS) under the Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. The mission launched on April 17, 2019; this is the last mission from the extended CRS contract: follow-up missions are part of the CRS2 contract. Cygnus NG-11 was also the first mission to utilise the Antares twenty four hour prior load where critical hardware could be loaded into Cygnus just twenty four hours prior to launch.

Orbital ATK and NASA jointly developed a new space transportation system to provide commercial cargo resupply services to the International Space Station (ISS). Under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program, then Orbital Sciences designed and built Antares, a medium-class launch vehicle; Cygnus, an advanced manoeuvring spacecraft, and a Pressurized Cargo Module which is provided by Orbital’s industrial partner Thales Alenia Space.

The CRS continuation

The Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract definition/solicitation period commenced in 2014 and a result announced on January 14, 2016. The CRS2 launches are expected to commence in 2019, and extend to at least 2024. On January 14, 2016, NASA announced that three companies had been awarded contracts for a minimum of six launches each: SpaceX, Orbital ATK and SNC.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is an American privately held electronic systems provider and systems integrator specialising in microsatellites, telemedicine, and commercial orbital transportation services. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is run by Chief Executive Officer, Fatih Ozmen and President, Eren Ozmen. The company contracts with the United States Armed Forces, NASA and private spaceflight companies. It is headquartered in Sparks, Nevada.

The maximum potential value of all the contracts was indicated to be fourteen billion American dollars, but the minimum requirements would be considerably less. No further financial information was disclosed. The missions involved would be from late 2019 through to 2024.

Concluding remarks

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 COTS prove successful.