COTS and CCDev: The Beginning of NEW SPACE Launch Vehicles

written by David Mixson

By now, I’m almost certain you know we canceled the Shuttle without a replacement. It seems like I might have mentioned that already.

What you might not know, however, is that the NASA center in charge of designing a replacement repeatedly failed to design a new launch vehicle for well over a decade. Center management would blame Washington politics. Others might say it’s incompetency. You be the judge.

It’s not like NASA insiders didn’t realize the Shuttle was aging and would eventually need a replacement. In 2005, NASA started a vehicle design called Constellation. It was canceled in 2010 for numerous reasons. 

In 2011, NASA still didn’t have anything that could launch crew into space. Politicians canceled the Shuttle anyway, and NASA had to rely on the Russian space agency to ferry American astronauts and cargo to ISS.

With a track record of failed attempts at designing and building a new launch vehicle with Old Space traditional contracts, somebody important decided we needed a different approach.

Supplies to ISS

In 2006, NASA asked the aerospace industry for help by using the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. COTS was to help commercial companies develop the capabilities to launch supplies to ISS. And instead of using traditional NASA contract methods, NASA used Space Act Agreements (SAAs). COTS was basically a series of SAAs. I explain SAAs in more depth in Space Act Agreements: A Better Way to Do the Business of Space.

Launching Crew to ISS

In 2010, NASA asked the aerospace industry for help again, this time using the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The purpose of CCDev was to help private sector companies develop the capabilities to launch astronauts to ISS.

Like COTS, CCDev was basically a series of SAAs. The SAAs were structured in phases, and NASA paid out when companies met performance milestones.

COTS and CCDev were pivotal moments for NASA because they signaled a new way of doing business. Instead of using SAAs for small tasks, NASA figured out a way to get the granddaddy task of designing and building a new launch vehicle.

In the end, NASA used SAAs along with traditional contracts to get multiple launch vehicles capable of hauling cargo and crew into space. And they did it all for a fraction of the cost of Old Space—in a fraction of the time.

I’ll discuss the two traditional NASA contracts: Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) and Commercial Crew Program (CCP), that followed COTS and CCDev (respectively), in a future article.

COTS and CCDev were complex instruments, but their lessons were powerful.

What We Learned

  1. COTS and CCDev signaled the beginning of a new way to get launch vehicles with New Space.
  2. COTS and CCDev happened during the same period that Old Space NASA was developing the Space Launch System (SLS) using carry-over rocket motors from Shuttle.
  3. SpaceX and Orbital flew supplies to ISS in 2011 and 2012 (respectively) with new vehicles developed through the COTS program.
  4. SpaceX flew crew to ISS in 2020 with a vehicle developed through CCDev. Boeing is scheduled to fly crew to ISS in 2024.
  5. COTS and CCDev saved time and money and helped the aerospace industry develop new technologies.

In the end, COTS and CCDev led our country back to launching crew from American soil. Without this series of SAAs, NASA would still be relying on the Russians to ferry astronauts and supplies to ISS.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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