SpaceX's Dragon was the first commercial vehicle to dock at the International Space Station

Nasa looks for more vehicles to ferry cargo to space station

Nasa has issued a request for proposal inviting further companies to develop technology for delivering supplies to the International Space Station.

Planning to sign contracts with one or two companies to conduct at least six delivery missions each, Nasa would like to see the new technology flying by 2020 with the possible extension of service by 2024, which is now considered as the end date of the International Space Station’s operations. The ISS is still seen as an important research facility and test bed for development of technologies for more complex manned space missions.

“The International Space Station is vital to the United States’ exploration efforts, a laboratory in orbit where we can work off the Earth, for the Earth,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations and Nasa Headquarters. “To push beyond low-Earth orbit and on to Mars, we rely on American industry to keep the station supplied through cargo deliveries.”

Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle programme, Nasa has decided to focus on development of deep space exploration capabilities, including a possible mission to Mars, and handed over the ISS supply delivery to private firms.

The new delivery vehicles will follow in the footsteps of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences who have been delivering cargo to the orbital outpost on commercial basis for the past two years. Before commencing a paid service, the newcomer companies would have to perform a demonstration flight, proving their technology is capable to launch safely and rendezvous with the orbital station.

By opening up the additional contract opportunities, Nasa hopes to push down the cost and optimise the financial burden on American tax payers. The proposals have to be submitted by 14 November and the successful candidates will be announced in May next year.

Earlier this month, Nasa awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop technology to ferry American astronauts to the ISS from American soil starting in 2017.  Since the space shuttle retirement, Nasa has been forced to rely on Russia to bring astronauts to the space station on Russian-made Soyuz, paying $70m per seat.

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