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April 2, 2014 – 11:05 am

Images*Will merge into one company, Orbital ATK, on February 10, 2015. **Designed to be compatible with Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9 rockets. Sources: Company websites and disclosures.

Not all companies with space ambitions are created equally, however, and success has been difficult to come by for those targeting ISS resupply contracts. Let's survey the spacecraft first.

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Orbital Sciences is developing the Cygnus spacecraft under a cargo resupply contract with NASA. Although it will never ferry humans back and forth from the ISS, Cygnus will provide more flexible options for American space ambitions than relying on our Russian partners. While the biggest obstacle for Cygnus might be its launch vehicle Antares, merging with Alliant, a leader in rocket propulsion systems, will certainly provide a big boost. Will it be enough to match the costs expected to be achieved by SpaceX's Dragon/Falcon combination?

Long before it expected to merge with Orbital Sciences, Alliant actually designed a capsule named Liberty, but scrapped the project after it wasn't selected by the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program at NASA. A longtime partner of national space programs sponsored by the United States, the company is working with NASA on the Orion/Space Launch System combo - providing the launch abort motors for the Orion spacecraft and heat shield components. After the merger, Orbital ATK will be the only company in the new commercial space race with major, direct stakes in two spacecraft/launch vehicle combinations.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is going full-steam ahead developing the Orion spacecraft. While capable of resupplying the ISS, Orion is intended to allow humans to explore the Moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars. It would also figure to play a prominent role in NASA's proposed Mars practice run, which plans to establish a permanent human presence in the atmosphere of Venus in the next several decades. However, Orion isn't expected to conduct its first manned mission until at least 2021. That's nearly four years after the current deadline for a manned mission from SpaceX, although the deadlines for all companies in the table above have shifted in the last 18 months.

The ISS is the battleground for contracts today, but this Venus orbiter could take its place in 20 years. Image source: NASA.

Not far behind is the CST-100 spacecraft from Boeing, which is designed to be rocket agnostic. In fact, the company is actually in the lead in terms of scheduled manned launch dates and funding received from NASA. It's also the only company not named SpaceX that was awarded a NASA contract to provide manned launches to the ISS. Yet, despite earning an identical contract with identical milestones, Boeing is eligible to receive up to $1.6 billion more than SpaceX.


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