JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s lead on coordinating commercial cargo services to the International Space Station, is looking forward to the day he can log onto a website and order the supplies he needs in orbit just as he would to send a package across country overnight via FedEx or UPS.
It’s not exactly ordering food and other supplies or sending research projects to the ISS with a click of the mouse, but NASA is a step closer to regular — and competitive — commercial cargo flights to its orbiting laboratory.
On Sept. 17, Orbital Sciences is scheduled to send its Cygnus spacecraft to the space station as part of a demonstration flight that is the final step before regular commercial cargo missions for NASA.
During its test flight, Orbital’s G. David Lowe Cygnus craft will be put through a series of tests to measure its flight readiness before it docks with the space station with a load of food and other “non-critical” supplies. Should it pass the 11 markers, Orbital will be cleared to begin regular commercial cargo missions to the space station, making it one of two U.S. companies that will be the primary cargo delivery providers for NASA.
Space X, which completed its test flights last year and already had a cargo mission to the ISS, is the other commercial carrier for NASA.
If successful, Orbital won’t have long before it is in the space station commercial delivery business. Another mission — ORB 1 — could be launched as early as December.
NASA spent about $288 million to fund a portion of the mission, with Orbital Sciences picking up the rest of the tab. The company’s executive vice president, Frank Culbertson, a former NASA astronaut, envisions that the demo flight is the initial step to regular commercial cargo flights that will be part of a new commercial market.
“We know there is not 10 customers coming forward right now asking for cargo delivery to low earth orbit,” Culbertson said during a pre-flight briefing at the Johnson Space Center on Wednesday. "Maybe in (a few years), there will be 200, who knows… Developing this capability by us and Space X proves you can have a commercial service.”
Culbertson envisions such delivery services to go beyond low earth orbit. He wants to see his company assisting in delivery of supplies to long-distance missions including eventual trips to Mars.
It won’t come cheap, and while Culbertson would no reveal how much Orbital ponied up for the upcoming demonstration mission — only saying it was more than how much NASA invested — he expects that as technology is developed and flights become routine costs will go down and the marketability will increase.
For now, though, NASA is the lone customer, but one that expects a lot of service from Orbital and Space X.
Michael Suffredini, the program manager for the International Space Station, said he hopes to begin regular commercial flights to the ISS with Orbital and Space X spacecraft as “the workhorses” of cargo delivery.