Last September NASA released a request for proposals (RFP) for a second record of contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024. The proposals were due by November 14 with the awards expected in May this year. At the time of the RFP both Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) and SpaceX were flying cargo missions to ISS, however in October the third flight of Orbital’s manifest suffered a catastrophic failure resulting in the lost of the vehicle and reducing NASA to a single supplier for most of this year. This has caused NASA to have to change what is flown on SpaceX missions to compensate for the lose.
There are definite advantages to increasing the field of suppliers to the ISS not least of which is the ability to better handle accidents during launch. Another advantage is beyond NASA and ISS as each new supplier brings competition to the market and longer team should help reduce costs for other customers. This will become increasingly important and we look beyond ISS (link). Depending on the supplier there will be other advantages too, if Sierra or Boeing are selected then there will be additional down mass from ISS something only SpaceX is able to offer today.
However there clearly are dis-advantages to having new suppliers too. Any new supplier would have to be certified to bring supplies to ISS, this will incur additional costs for NASA and the supplier. Also we don’t know when the other suppliers will be ready to supply the station, while the contracts are being awarded this May and are not due to start until 2018 they would still need to show progress to ensure NASA has the continue supply line they need.
There is also the concern that four of the five suppliers are launching their vehicles using Russian made RD-180/181 rocket engines, which with the political climate at the moment could prove to be a problem longer term. We know that United Launch Alliance (ULA) who will be providing launch services for three suppliers are planning to move away from the RD-180 engine, however this is not going to happen until at least 2019 and would require certification before actual launches could be performed, which ULA’s Tory Bruno has said could take until 2022-23, so almost the end of the CRS2 contract.
Developing an American engine by 2019, cert in 2022-23, is an aggressive schedule. The existing law leaves us no flexibility
— Tory Bruno (@torybruno) February 26, 2015
Check back in May to see who the contracts have been awarded to.