By now, several articles have been written about SpaceX and RocketPlane-Kistler winning space station resupply/recrewing demonstration contracts from NASA. Clark Lindsey has a nice rundown, so I will not cover the basic news here. First off, congratulations are due to SpaceX and RPK. The prospect of cash now for development ($278 million for SpaceX and $207 million for RPK) and a further 6 flights per annum for resupply/recrewing of the International Space Station must be very attractive to each company. After all, 6 flights per annum is over 10% of the global space launch market. However, I hope that especially SpaceX's larger goals don't become caught in a bad business relationship with NASA.
(An artist's rendering of the SpaceX Dragon crew capsule.)
First and foremost, NASA is a political animal that is funded by annual appropriations by congressmen from states and districts that will benefit from the federal contracts. Secondarily, NASA has a manned space flight mission that burnishes the prestige of the United States and its allies. Well down on the list of priorities is expanding our scientific knowledge and technological know-how. Hardly on the list of priorities at all is price-effectivene contracting, and as such, any relationship with NASA will tend not to cultivate it. Any program that promises to decrease the price of these federal contracts seems likely to suffer from lack of political support.
In order to win the contract, RPK banked on this trait of NASA, and acted in a manner well suited to an old-line NASA contractor. It spread the subcontracts among a number of companies with facilities in politically well connected states and congressional districts. It partnered with Orbital Sciences and Lockheed-Martin, the old guard of the aerospace business with absolutely no interest in price-effectiveness. I understand this cynical approach, especially since much of the management of RPK are retirees from Lockheed-Martin.
I'm somewhat heartened by the fact that SpaceX didn't take this approach, and won 3/5ths of the money in the program anyway. RPK can take care of the political cover for the program while the real action is concerning whether or not SpaceX can deliver. After all, Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, was the lead on Elon Musk's feasibility study for the Falcon. We can surmise where Griffin's bet is placed.
At the end of the day, at a minimum, it seems prudent for SpaceX to plan for NASA being a poor customer and leaving SpaceX in the lurch. Congress may kill this program at any time, so SpaceX should treat each check from NASA as if it's the last.