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NASA Pulls COTS Funding From Rocketplane Kistler

But Company Has Option To Resubmit Bid

As expected, NASA has terminated its contract with Rocketplane Kistler to develop an inexpensive means of transporting cargo to the International Space Station, under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program.

MSNBC reports the space agency sent formal notice to the Oklahoma-based company's offices Thursday, just over one month after NASA put Rocketplane Kistler on notice it was in danger of losing out on further funding under the agreement.

As ANN reported, Rocketplane Kistler missed two recent milestones necessary to maintain COTS funding, including failure to raise $500 million in private investment by May. As a result, RpK was forced to stop further development work on its K-1 launch vehicle.

To date, Rocketplane Kistler has received just over $32 million, out of around $207 million in total funds the company was set to receive throughout fulfillment of the COTS agreement. The company won't have to pay that money back... but it won't see another dime from NASA, either, at least in the near-future.

With RpK out of the running, the door has been opened for other companies to submit bids. Potential bidders cited by MSNBC include Transformational Space and PlanetSpace, as well as SpaceDev, Spacehab and Constellation Systems International. SpaceX -- which won the balance of the original $500 million COTS bid, and has so far reached all its milestones -- could also bid for the work forfeited by Rocketplane Kistler.

NASA's Alan Lindenmoyer says RpK could also rebid for the work, if it manages to work out the bugs... noting the company has the option of continuing work on its K-1 on spec.

"We would welcome a new proposal from them to be evaluated against other proposals from industry," said Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The space agency is under the gun to find a new method of transporting cargo to the ISS, as the agency faces a hard 2010 deadline to retire its aging fleet of space shuttles.

If a private party is unable to take over the job by then, NASA will be forced to rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft (and the Progress cargo ship variant) to send supplies and manpower to the station, until the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle comes online in 2014.

While NASA would prefer to have a COTS vehicle online by then, Lindenmoyer said, it won't be a requirement for late entrants to the bidding. "We have our need in that time frame," he said. "It's not a requirement."

NASA plans to post the requirements for the second round of bidding Monday, with proposals due within 30 days.

Lindenmoyer stressed the falling out with RpK should not be taken as a failure of the COTS program.

"This is not a traditional NASA program, so therefore, recognizing that level of risk that we are undertaking, and the potential payoff, it is not a surprise. ... We had a quantifiable risk, and it was mitigated by the fact that we were able to make a decision early on in the program," he said.

Formed by the pairing of Rocketplane Limited, Inc. and Kistler Aerospace Corporation in March 2006, Rocketplane Kistler has since split into two units. Rocketplane Kistler will continue its focus on the K-1, while Rocketplane Global will work on a suborbital spaceplane, similar to the original Lear-based Rocketplane.

FMI: www.rocketplanekistler.com, www.nasa.gov

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