Headlines > News > Space Race 2: NASA ups the space-ride ante

Space Race 2: NASA ups the space-ride ante

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Feb 23, 2005 5:12 am
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By Irene Mona Klotz:

This artist’s concept illustrates a Falcon 1 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 22 (UPI) — Back in the heady days of commercial space, when startup rocket-launch services firms sprang like spring flowers in response to what looked like a robust market for placing small communication satellites into orbit, Kistler Aerospace Corp. was riding high.

With private financing, a high-powered and well-connected management team and accomplished engineers, the firm, in Kirkland, Wash., was widely regarded as a front runner in the race to develop an alternative space transportation system.

Lured by the prospect of launching satellites for mobile communication networks such as Iridium and Globalstar, Kistler developed a two-stage reusable rocket it called the K-1 and announced plans to build launch complexes in Woomera, Australia, and at the U.S. military’s Nevada Test Site, located 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

The company caught NASA’s eye as well. Back when the agency was still enamored with the idea of reusable launch vehicles — an interest that consumed billions of dollars in a series of projects ultimately dispatched to the agency’s inactive files — Kistler’s concept seemed ahead of its time. Not only would the K-1 be able to haul about 7,000 pounds to an orbit as high as the International Space Station’s, but it also could be loaded with cargo and returned to Earth.

After awarding Kistler a study contract in 2000, NASA decided it wanted data about how the K-1 could operate in space, particularly in close proximity to the space station. The agency gave Kistler a follow-on contract in 2001, worth up to $135 million for K-1 flight data, then last year upped the stakes to $227 million for data on five test flights.

The deal drew a bitter protest from Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of El Segundo, Calif., which had been eyeing NASA business of its own. SpaceX and other space services firms objected to the exclusivity of NASA’s non-competitive pact with Kistler, and the contract was put on hold, pending a General Accounting Office inquiry. The challenge came as Kistler was struggling to emerge from a 2003 bankruptcy filing and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

In June, the Government Accountability Office advised NASA the protest was valid, so the agency rescinded its deal with Kistler — the matter closed, but hardly forgotten.

The opening bell for Round 2 sounded this month with the release of NASA’s proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1, and the clock ticking down toward the space shuttle’s retirement.

NASA now is far more than interested in alternative transportation services to the space station. With Russia on schedule to complete its contractual requirements for rides to the station on Soyuz spacecraft next year, NASA must secure other transportation to the station.

In addition, though the space shuttle’s anticipated return to flight this year — currently scheduled for May 15 — should buy NASA some time, there will be at least a four-year gap between the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2010 and the start of crew transports aboard NASA’s proposed follow-on spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Thus, in reviving its call for “alternative access to the space station” and budgeting $160 million for such services in 2006 — and a total of $1.7 billion over the next five years — NASA now is adding an option for commercial companies to ferry not just cargo, but also crewmembers to space. If it comes to fruition, NASA itself will provide a huge incentive for the nascent sub-orbital commercial spaceflight industry to aim for higher ground.

Kistler, for one, is keenly interested in transporting goods and eventually people into orbit for NASA.

“There certainly are alternative ways of getting mass to the station,” Randy Brinkley, the company’s chief executive officer, told UPI’s Space Race 2. “Right now, no one has the down-mass capability. It’s cheaper for us to be able to complete the vehicle than to have a new vehicle that’s built from scratch.”

With the K-1 vehicle 75 percent completed and financing lined up to emerge from bankruptcy within a month or two, Kistler has a new business plan, which while not dependent on NASA, is positioning the firm to ride the waves of change that have been pummeling the space agency since the 2003 shuttle Columbia accident and President George W. Bush’s redirection of the agency’s priorities from the shuttle fleet and the space station to human exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.

When it comes to understanding the needs of NASA and the intricacies of the space station in particular, Kistler does not have to travel far for information. Brinkley helped to develop the space station for NASA and direct the program between 1994 and 1999, and he is joined at Kistler by Wil Trafton, the agency’s former associate administrator for space flight; Dan Tam, the former deputy space station program manager; Dick Kohrs, director of the Freedom program, the station’s precursor.

Kistler also relies on a team of technical advisers including Aaron Cohen, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center; Dale Myers, a former NASA deputy administrator and associate administrator of manned space flight, and Henry Pohl, former space station chief engineer.

Further, Kistler’s chairman of the board and chief architect of the K-1 vehicle is George Mueller, who headed NASA’s Gemini, Apollo and Saturn programs and oversaw development of the agency’s first space station, Skylab, as well as the space shuttle.

Still, when NASA puts out the call for commercial space transport service proposals later this year, Brinkley said the K-1 will stand on its own.

“I think we have an inherent capability,” he said.

K-1’s debut flight is expected in early 2007, Brinkley said, adding that the company is looking at alternative U.S. launch sites, particularly at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to serve NASA and a variety of commercial customers.

“It’s a great opportunity for entrepreneurs in the commercial sector,” said Debra Facktor Lepore, Kistler’s vice president for business development and strategic planning.

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