Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), headquartered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was developing a reusable rocket named K-1 under the NASA program Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). NASA had promised $207 million to RpK for its total work within the COTS program under the condition that it meets its deadlines. The company failed to meet its fourth deadline. As of its termination it had received $32 million of the total amount. The company had been warned by NASA officials about its inability to secure the necessary funds.
RpK was created in 2006 by the two private aerospace companies Rocketplane Limited, Inc. and Kistler Aerospace—Rocketplane acquired Kistler as its subsidiary. The two companies were expected to work together on the COTS program, but retain their separate identities.
The other competitor in COTs is Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), based in El Segundo, California, which is proceeding nominally in its quest to develop its own supply ship, Falcon 9, for the ISS. It has been promised $278 million from NASA for its developmental work, as long as it continues to meet its goals.
SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002, also the founder of PayPal. It uses a partially reusable two-stage liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle (rocket), with 9 Merlin engines for the first stage and one Merlin engine for the second stage, for its Falcon 9 spacecraft. The development for Falcon 9 was announced by representatives of SpaceX on September 8, 2005. The first flight of Falcon 9 is now scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2008. Its future manned space capsule is called Dragon. The company contends it will be able to deliver the world’s “lowest cost flight to orbit”. The company states that it expects to offer low Earth orbit (LEO) flights for as low at $35 million (figure as of January 2007).
Of twenty proposals for COTS, RpK and SpaceX were selected by NASA on August 18, 2006, for its Phase 1 of the program.
NASA is expecting to use the money left over from the RpK deal—about $175 million—to make proposals to other companies interested in the contract. NASA expects to choose one of these companies in the first quarter of 2008.
COTS is a NASA program that provides commercial delivery services consisting of crews and cargo to the International Space Station probably between the years of 2010 and 2015. The Space Transportation System (STS) is expected to close down in 2010, and the new Constellation Project, consisting of the Ares launch vehicles and the manned Orion space capsules (or crew exploration vehicles) is expected to begin operations in 2014.
It is expected that developmental costs of the NASA COTS program will be around $500 million.
The COTS program consists of four areas of expertise: (1) external unpressurized cargo delivery and disposal, (2) internal pressurized cargo delivery and disposal, (3) internal pressurized cargo delivery, return, and recovery, and (4) crew transportation.
Until COTS is up and running, NASA will purchase transportation services to and from the space from the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. In addition, the European Space Agency is developing its Automated Transfer Vehicle and the Japanese are developing its H-II Transfer Vehicle.