Nearly two decades after NASA, China and Europe considered Ars Technica commercial cargo plans

SpaceX launches its 28th resupply mission to the International Space Station on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Zoom in / SpaceX launches its 28th resupply mission to the International Space Station on Monday, June 5, 2023.

SpaceX

Just in the last month, both the European and Chinese space agencies launched a call for private companies to develop the capability to deliver cargo to space stations in low Earth orbit.

On May 11, the European Space Agency announced a “Commercial Cargo Transport Initiative” that would see one or more suppliers develop the capability to deliver 2 tonnes to the International Space Station by 2028 and be able to bring back safely 1 ton on Earth. Each proponent company must procure its own rocket for a demonstration mission.

Less than a week later, on May 16, the China Manned Space Engineering Office announced a “Low-Cost Cargo Transport System” plan to hire private companies to deliver cargo to its Tiangong space station. Eligible suppliers must be capable of delivering at least 1.8 tonnes into low Earth orbit. The Chinese spacecraft does not need to return cargo but should be able to dispose of 2 tons. China’s space agency said it would pay no more than $17.2 million per ton of cargo delivered.

These initiatives are significant because they represent recognition by two very different major space agencies that NASA’s approach to commercial space over the past two decades has been successful in spurring a new space industry. However, each of these initiatives may ultimately struggle.

What did NASA do

In 2005, under the leadership of Administrator Mike Griffin, NASA said it would use private companies to deliver cargo to the International Space Station following the retirement of the Space Shuttle. During the initial phase of this program, formally called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, NASA supported SpaceX with a total of $396 million in development funding and Orbital Sciences with $288 million.

During this initial phase of the program, a small team of NASA engineers worked with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, providing technical advice and other support. At the same time, NASA officials have been careful to let companies innovate and design their own vehicles.

The program was mutually beneficial. By the end of the development program, NASA had two vehicles, SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon and Orbital’s Cygnus, capable of delivering cargo to the space station for a fraction of the price it would have paid using a traditional contracting method. And in turn, funding from NASA has allowed the US commercial space industry to leapfrog.

“We wouldn’t be the company we are today without NASA’s support,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in NASA’s official report on the COTS program in 2014. “We’d probably be limping, trying to change the world, but limping instead of run”.

Following this development program, both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences moved into the operational phase of the program, known as Commercial Resupply Services. At this stage, NASA purchased refueling missions from the companies. On Monday, for example, SpaceX successfully launched its 28th resupply mission to the space station.

Reasons for concern

So why can’t Europe and China replicate this success? They can, of course. But there are some potential pitfalls.

Chief among these concerns is that both the European Space Agency and China’s space agency appear to be skipping the “COTS” phase of the program, during which NASA shared its expertise and provided a significant amount of cash.

Conversely, for the initial phase of its programme, the European Space Agency is making available a total of €2 million to support two companies with preliminary design and fundraising activities. (See a list of potential bidders.) The benefit of this is clear: It allows ESA to launch a commercial cargo program well ahead of its next “ministerial” meeting in 2025, when it can ask member nations for more significant funding to support the initiative load.

But there is also a serious drawback. While there may be more funding in the second round, the European Space Agency is now counting on private companies to raise funds, develop test articles and procure an independent launch for a 2028 demonstration mission. This will easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars, all to have the opportunity to compete for future contracts for the supply of goods.

This looks like a really steep hill for European companies to climb. Certainly, no company is likely to be ready by 2028. The European Space Agency seems to recognize this, as it is telling companies it would like cargo delivery services for the International Space Station or private stations arriving later.

Be patient

There is less information on China’s plan, but it appears the country is paying suppliers by the ton. While there will no doubt be transfers of technology and other assistance from the Chinese government to its private companies, the proposed funding amount, $17 million per ton, seems woefully inadequate for the required service. Developing, testing and flying cargo spacecraft is both difficult and expensive.

For example, in its initial services contract with SpaceX, NASA paid $133 million per mission to bring a couple tons of cargo to the International Space Station. That contract was awarded in late 2008. Adjusting for inflation, the award’s value today would be approximately $190 million. China, therefore, is proposing to pay its suppliers less than a fifth of the value of what NASA paid SpaceX and potentially without a COTS-like precursor program.

NASA’s commercial cargo program was ultimately successful because it chose good companies, invested heavily early on, and was able to provide technical expertise when needed. Even so, since the announcement of the COTS program, it has taken nearly seven years for the first supply ship to dock with the space station.

Hopefully, planners in Europe and China are just as patient.

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