NASA’s first foray into private spaceflight, the commercial orbital transportation services programme, also known as COTS, has seen a 60% hike in the agency’s investment with the fiscal year 2011 budget

Originally planned to cost $500 million which the agency would match against private finance to help develop new transportation systems, the real cost now looks to be at least $800 million

In today’s exploration FY2011 budget teleconference NASA exploration systems mission directorate head Doug Cooke admitted that the $312 million for “commercial cargo” was $300 million of additional monies – over the $12 million originally planned for FY2011 under the FY2010 budget

While the FY2011 budget document refers to “additional incentives” under commercial cargo on page 10 Cooke said in the telecon that the $312 million was “insurance” so they, the COTS companies Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences could succeed; and that the money would help accelerate the programme with “more flights” and enhancements such as “downmass,” which could be a reference to Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft that unlike SpaceX’s Dragon was not originally conceived as being able to bring back cargo

The hike could be an embarressment for president Barack Obama’s new spaceflight vision and his NASA administrator Charles Bolden because the agency and administration has, in the past 48 hours, invested so much confidence in what is effectively the privatisation of low Earth orbit transport of crew and cargo – with the announcement of the Commercial Crew Development initiative funded space act agreement winnersStarted in 2006 to enable cargo delivery to the ISS by 2011, the development phase, COTS, originally had the entrepreneurial participants SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler that was later replaced by Orbital

The second phase, the $3.5 billion commercial resupply contract (CRS) for ISS cargo, was awarded in 2008 to SpaceX and Orbital

The extra funds in FY2011 could have been explained by initial delivery payments under the CRS but neither of these two companies or NASA were available for further comment on the dramatic budget change

The total cost for COTS will be above $800 million because both companies have already benefitted from $24 million in extra funds under Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment act. These funds covered technology development, human rating requirements research and spaceport improvements

With Bolden investing confident rhetoric in the privatisation of space transport the 60% hike for COTS demonstrates that it is not a path without difficulty