Three private space companies just landed massive NASA contracts to haul cargo

A SpaceX spacecraft brings a load of cargo to the International Space Station in 2015.
A SpaceX spacecraft brings a load of cargo to the International Space Station in 2015.
Image: AP Photo/NASA
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NASA picked three companies today (Jan. 14) to operate an orbital mule train, hauling supplies and experiments to and from the International Space Station from 2017 through 2024, the end of the laboratory’s expected lifespan.

The three companies are OrbitalATK and SpaceX, which currently hold contracts bringing cargo to the space station, and Sierra Nevada, which missed out on the last round of contracts despite developing a unique winged spacecraft that still awaits operational testing. Officials said each company would be expected to deliver a minimum of six flights.

NASA did not release the costs of the contracts, saying the final number would depend on what kinds of missions it chooses from the providers, who offer a mix of options, including flights that maintain atmospheric pressure to protect living experiments and sensitive supplies; unpressurized flights for inert cargo, and the ability to return experiments and trash back to earth or simply dispose of it.

NASA scientists say they are particularly excited about new options to return living samples to scientists within three to six hours of departure from the ISS.

The maximum value of the contract was listed at $14 billion when it was advertised for bids, but a NASA official cautioned that the final cost would be significantly lower. The previous cargo contracts were $1.6 billion for 12 flights from SpaceX and $1.9 billion for eight flights from OrbitalATK. So far, those two companies have brought 17.5 tons of supplies to the space station.

When the Commercial Cargo program began in 2008, it helped make SpaceX a viable company and kicked off a new phase of public-private partnership in space. Despite dramatic launch failures by both SpaceX and OrbitalATK, the success of the program can be seen in today’s announcement and NASA’s decision to fund teams at Boeing and SpaceX working on bringing astronauts to the station.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden today argued that NASA’s creation of a market for commercial space transit has helped boost private investment in space commerce.

“More venture capital was invested in America’s space industry in 2015 than in all the previous 15 years combined,” he wrote in a blog post about the new contracts.