Commercial Space Program Keeps Flame of Exploration Burning

When I saw the Olympic torch on its first spacewalk in history this past Saturday, I was reminded of NASA’s 50-plus years as the world’s undisputed leader in space exploration. Today, we have more evidence of that leadership. After more than 10 years of hard work, milestones and successes, NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program is passing the torch. 

Orbital's Antares takes off on a test flight. NASA photo by Bill Ingalls.
Orbital’s Antares takes off on a test flight. NASA photo by Bill Ingalls.




A little more than two years after the end of the Space Shuttle Program, two American companies, SpaceX of Hawthorne, California and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. have restored American capability to deliver and return experiments and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), replacing our reliance on foreign providers. Their successes mark the conclusion of the COTS program and clear the way for both companies to begin providing regular transportation services to the ISS.

These achievements did not happen by chance. They are the result of strong, bipartisan leadership by the Obama and Bush Administrations, and extraordinary execution by the men and women at NASA and our partners in the private sector. This is a great example of continuity across Administrations when the good of the nation takes front and center. Building on this public-private partnership model, President Obama has invested in an even more ambitious plan to have American companies transport our astronauts to the ISS on spacecraft launched from U.S. soil, ending the outsourcing of this work overseas. It is now critically important to get full funding from Congress, to keep us on track to begin these launches in 2017.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule is grappled by the International Space Station.
A SpaceX Dragon capsule is grappled by the International Space Station.

SpaceX completed its COTS development with a demonstration mission to the space station in 2012. Since then, the company has flown the first two of 12 contracted cargo resupply flights to the space station through a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

Orbital Sciences ended its development phase in October, with a successful demonstration mission to the space station. Orbital is poised to launch the first of its eight cargo resupply missions to the space station in December through its $1.9 billion CRS contract with NASA.
Throughout the COTS program, NASA’s partners achieved a number of important spaceflight firsts for the U.S. commercial space industry. This included the first commercial spacecraft to orbit and return to Earth to earth in tact, achieved by SpaceX. The company also was the first commercial provider to resupply the space station. Orbital Sciences was the first company to launch to the space station from Virginia, beginning its mission from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

Safe, reliable and affordable commercial access to low-Earth orbit is a critical component of NASA’s parallel path for human exploration. To that end, we are passing the torch of innovation to our partners in our Commercial Crew Program. Three companies, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are hard at work developing the next generation of U.S. spacecraft and rockets capable of transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit from American soil. NASA intends to use new commercial capabilities to fly U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station within the next four years. Next week, the agency will issue a final Request for Proposals for contracts designed to ensure commercial companies meet NASA’s safety requirements for transporting NASA crews to the space station.

America’s best days in space exploration are ahead of us thanks to the grit and determination of those in government – and the private sector – who dare to dream big dreams, and have the skills to turn them into reality.

My congratulations to SpaceX, Orbital and the entire NASA workforce for the success of our COTS program. Because of your Olympian efforts, NASA continues to keep the torch of exploration burning and we keep bringing home the gold.

To watch a video about COTS accomplishments, visit: