(FloridaToday.com) - A program hailed as one of NASA's biggest successes will declare mission accomplished if an Orbital Sciences Corp. cargo freighter safely links up with the International Space Station this week.
For less than $800 million in taxpayer funds, the agency's partnership with Orbital and SpaceX has produced two new cargo spacecraft and two new rockets at a fraction of what traditional NASA-led developments would have cost, according to NASA's own analysis.
Advocates say the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, has forever changed the agency, proving private companies can deliver critical space systems more affordably under the right conditions.
"No one will ever be able to say again that commercial approaches do not work for human spaceflight," said Jim Muncy of PoliSpace, a space policy consultant. "And there were a lot of people who said it wouldn't work."
It now remains to be seen whether the same approach, still resisted in some quarters, can be applied more broadly as pressure on NASA's budget grows.
The program's participants are confident the answer is yes.
"You can take that model into many other areas of spaceflight, beyond even human spaceflight," said Frank Culbertson, a former astronaut who heads Orbital's advanced programs. "I think you're going to see more of it over the next 10 to 20 years."
Started in 2006, COTS addressed the need to service the space station after the shuttle's planned retirement.
The concept was to start flying cargo, and potentially crews, commercially, something never done before in space.
"We started the program with the vision that we would be able to go to a catalog or the Internet and order up some cargo delivery services to the International Space Station," said Alan Lindenmoyer, COTS program manager at Johnson Space Center.
NASA then committed $500 million over five years, to be split among two partners. More money was added later.
If that sounds like a lot, consider: The agency will spend twice as much this year alone on the Orion capsule, which is being developed to fly crews in deep space and whose total cost is projected at more than $16 billion.
Such complex projects have traditionally used "cost-plus" contracts, in which NASA pays all the program costs plus a profit margin to the contractors, and calls all the shots.
Given its limited funding, COTS did things differently.
Fixed payments were awarded for completion of preset milestones and the partners had to share the costs.
In return, NASA ceded some of its usual control, specifying the basic functions that systems had to perform but letting companies create and own their designs.
The arrangement meant the companies were partners rather than simply contractors.
"When this was proposed, it was a radical departure from the status quo," said Max Vozoff, who led SpaceX's COTS bid and now runs a consulting business, mv2space.
NASA awarded deals to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, firms with no track records, immediately raising doubts.
When Rocketplane Kistler failed to raise promised funding, NASA replaced it with Orbital.
Like most space development efforts, schedules slipped, but costs didn't soar as a result.
In May of last year, SpaceX's Dragon capsule flew beneath the station, was captured by a robotic arm and berthed to a port - all firsts for privately run spacecraft.
"Seeing it work was a real priceless moment," said Lindenmoyer, who counts the event among the great "firsts" in spaceflight history.
Orbital's upcoming demonstration flight, slated to launch Wednesday morning from Virginia, could establish it as a second cargo delivery service.
Culbertson said two things made the program work: both sides' commitment to do it right, and that "there was going to be a market for it after we developed it."
Seeing NASA as a near-term customer for station resupply missions and the potential for other customers, the partners were willing to risk their own money.
Indeed, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has won numerous contracts to launch commercial satellites, a market the U.S. had mostly lost to international providers. Orbital hopes to do the same with its Antares rocket.
The same logic doesn't yet apply to deep space exploration, such as NASA's plan to capture and send a crew to an asteroid.
Still, Vozoff and others see many more projects NASA could pursue in a "COTS-like" way, enabling it to do more even with a tighter budget.
Possibilities include lunar landers or habitats, orbital fuel depots, launches of small satellites, vehicle subsystems such as non-toxic propulsion, and Earth observation data.
NASA this year asked for ideas and got more than 40 responses.
"I am very confident that the end of this (COTS) program will open some new doors," said Lindenmoyer.
An immediate extension of the program has been the Obama administration's 2010 decision to fly crews commercially instead of with a NASA rocket, whose development was canceled.
Although COTS had proposed the concept years earlier, the shift sparked a nasty political debate.
Like its cargo predecessor, the commercial crew program began with fixed-price milestones and greater autonomy for the partners.
But Congress demanded a switch to traditional contracts that gave NASA more oversight, arguing it was necessary to certify the systems' safety.
NASA maintains that the commercial programs complement its exploration goals, freeing up resources for more challenging technologies.
But politically and inside NASA, some see the commercial success as a threat to the slower, more expensive development of exploration systems that support thousands of jobs.
Phil McAlister, head of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters, told an advisory committee this summer that the agency was still adjusting to a difficult culture change.
"There is somewhat of a feeling that to the extent that this (commercial) approach is successful, that in some way it's a knock against our traditional approach," McAlister said, adding that he didn't agree.
Delivering cargo or people to the space station still isn't as simple as placing an order online, but COTS supporters say that vision is closer to reality.
"It was a great experiment, and we're just about to finish that and turn it into something real," said Culbertson.