Mystery continues to surround the decision to add $300 million to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration project (COTS) in the agency’s fiscal year 2011 budget request

During the 25 February US House of Representatives’ committee on science and technology’s space subcommittee NASA FY2011 budget request hearing (click here to watch the webcast) the space agency’s administrator Charles Bolden said that they decided more money was needed to realise cargo transport, that there are now companies that have come “in the last few months” that have said they could do it cheaper and that at the beginning of COTS the bidders had only been small firms, adding that “we are going to open a new round” of bidding

Hyperbola contacted NASA to ask about what Bolden had meant and what prospects there were for other companies to become part of COTS. But the agency has only responded with information (see full text of the response in the extended portion of this blog post) that is taken straight from the budget request text but with the caveat that nothing has been decided

However, considering aerospace projects tendency to take longer and cost more than originally projected it is likely that NASA will simply use the money to try to ensure the COTS companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences, deliver on the promised cargo transport capability next year as Space Shuttle is retired this year

SpaceX is already over two years late in the launching of its first COTS demonstration flight. That was planned for 2008 and its third flight was to have taken place by the end of last year. Orbital, which replaced Rocketplane-Kistler in early 2008, originally planned  its demo flight for the fourth quarter of this year but a NASA requirement change for a pressurised cargo module saw that launch pushed back to March 2011; a date which itself could come under threat

So we are left wondering what exactly Bolden meant by his references to a need for more money, a plan for new rounds of bidding, companies that claim they can do it cheaper and a sugegstion that larger aerospace companies could be involved in this apparent new phase

We are still in the planning stages regarding how the new money for COTS in FY11 will be used. It is possible that we could invest $312 million for incentivizing NASA’s current commercial cargo program to expedite the pace of development, add or accelerate the achievement of already-planned milestones and add additional capabilities or tests that may ultimately expedite the pace of development of cargo flights to the ISS and reduce risk. Risk reduction may include adding milestones to complete the Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) to identify early risks. Again, no decisions have been made on that or any of the other potential future COTS activities.