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What's wrong in COTS
January 10, 2008

The NASA "COTS" (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) has been widely seen as a "revolution" in the US space agency's policy about space hardware contractors since it allows some new.space companies to enter the "big game" of the professional space.

Clearly, COTS actually IS a revolution vs. the past NASA choices (based on multi-billion$ contracts only with multi-billion$ aerospace companies like Boeing, etc.) but (like happen with all new things) the practical application of this new philosophy/policy is flawed in several points.

First of all, to-day's COTS contracts are only a duplication of vehicles and services that are already (or soon) available, like the (crew+cargo) Space Shuttle (whose flights will end in 2010 but seems could be extended to 2015, to fill the GAP between the planned last Shuttle flight and the first manned Orion launch in 2016, that may happen especially if the Shuttles will be modified to be SAFER and/or fly CREWLESS) the (crew) Soyuz and the (cargo) Progress, ATV and HTV (maybe, also, with some cargo/crew Shenzhou from China, if this country will become an ISS international partner).

The evidence that COTS is only a duplication (and that NASA seems NOT believe they'll really succeed soon in their effort...) is the last year $870M NASA contract with Russia to buy many Progress cargo and Soyuz "seats" (to fill the 2010-2016 spaceflights' gap).

Another problem of to-day's COTS is the low amount of funds (if compared with USA and NASA standards) that allows NASA to assign only two contracts and need the contracts' winner to add their own funds and raise extra-funds from banks and privates, that's not easy to do (as the RpK story clearly shows).

And, while the COTS funds are too little to allow many good researches, they are too much for the required jobs (low cost cargo and crews vehicles for the ISS) since, using the same COTS funds ($500M) NASA can buy 20 further Progress cargo or Soyuz seats to cover ALL the ISS cargo and crew requirements between 2015 and 2020 (when USA will withdraw from ISS) SAVE up to $15 billion (for the 2016 to 2020 Orion ISS flights) and use that money to launch MORE moon missions and SOONER.

To be REALLY useful and effective, NASA should make several (radical) changes to the COTS program, as explained below:

The first change should be in the total amount of money invested that must be, at least, TWO billion$ in the next 2-3 years.

This larger amount of funds should be assigned to MANY different contracts (rather than two) with dozens single investments ranging from few million$ to hundreds million$ each.

Every new.space company must receive the FULL amount of money it needs (for a given project) without add any own funds (that many brilliant but small companies don't have) nor search additional funds from banks and investors, that are NOT so easy to find for some small new.space companies (then, LOSING many good ideas that never borns).

But the most important change in the COTS program must be the kind or projects that NASA should finance with the COTS funds, then, avoid all (Orion, Progress, Soyuz, ATV) duplications (excluding the SpaceX project that seem run in the right way and timeline) but assign all the COTS contracts ONLY in new, useful, innovative and complementary space projects, like those listed here:

cheap and reliable systems for earth/lunar orbit and lunar surface, liquid, cryogenic and hypergolic propellents REFUEL of cargo and crew vehicles,

very long term (5+ years) orbital storage of liquid, cryogenic and hypergolic propellents using new materials and active and passive systems to prevent the cryogenic propellents boil-off,

very cheap rockets (built with low cost engines and composite materials) to carry large amounts of propellents to the orbital storage tanks at very low price per mT,

low cost and long opeational term refuelable Space Tugs for orbit to orbit maneuver of cargo and crew modules for ISS, orbital, commercial, Moon and Mars missions,

inflatable modules for orbital operations, ISS, new space stations, lunar departure base in earth orbit and space tourism,

new orbital assembly and repair modules, with robotarms, toolboxes, airlocks, etc. able to replace the Space Shuttle abilities after 2010,

newly designed, winged and lifting body, reusable launch vehicles' scale-models to test future cargo and crew vehicles, cheaper thermal shields, safe emergency systems, etc.

new materials, designs and retrieval systems to develop and build reusable rockets and engines for a cheaper access to space,

develop and test in space new safety systems to allow long term operations, living and travels in earth orbit and in lunar and martian orbits and surfaces,

etc. etc. etc.

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