At last, the moment the commercial space world has been waiting for: on Monday NASA posted its official request for proposals to build commercial spaceships that can send crew and/or cargo to the International Space Station.

Details here:

http://procurement.jsc.nasa.gov/cots/

Hit the “Announcement” link for the complete text of the RFP.

Two days of briefings for interested vendors are underway in Houston at this moment. Transformational Space Corporation, or t/Space, one of the best positioned players in this market, is represented there, along with representatives from an impressive list of almost a hundred other interested parties.

The winds of change are blowing at NASA, with officials from the Administrator down admitting that the agency’s “traditional” means of doing business, with massive, open-ended contracts awarded to a few aerospace “primes” just isn’t going to fly any more.

A crucial element of this RFP, and the one that might just set NASA free from the boondogling now threatening to eat it alive, is the stipulation that money will be awarded only to companies that can produce working hardware at a fixed price:

“Payments will be made upon the successful completion of performance milestones as proposed by the participants and negotiated with NASA. NASA’s contribution will be a fixed amount and will not be increased or decreased based on the participant’s ability to obtain private funding.”

Participating companies will keep the right to use their ships for other, commercial, purposes, say for ferrying tourists to commercial space stations.

Gary Hudson, t/Space co-founder, tells me he’s impressed with the RFP and that he’s confident that private industry can rise to the challenge. He does, however, admit that the amount of money NASA proposes to award will make it a tight squeeze.

T/Space’s current plans call for building an orbital spaceship for around $500 million. NASA’s current total budget for this project is $500 million, which will presumably be spread out among several competing vendors.

That’s partly because the agency is using the limited funds it has available to spend at its own discretion, without having to beg Congress for more. But it also reflects NASA officials’ view that private industry should bear at least some of the financial risk of building the new ships.

Certainly this is a great start, one that will hopefully snowball into a real sea change for NASA as well as give a shot in the arm to the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.

–Update on 12/9/05 at 12:35 Eastern–
David Gump, t/Space CEO has just given me more detail on this; he’s flying back now from Houston after the briefing. He’s careful to distinguish this new NASA project, called an “Annoucement,” from an “RFP,” which I’ve been calling it.

The distinction is that an RFP is NASA’s “traditional” approach to procuring hardware. This Annoucement, in contrast, will result in a Space Act Agreement being made with the winning vendors, which is very different. “The draft that they put out is very positive and very much in the spirit of doing things in the entrepreneurial way,” Gump told me.

Gump also corrected my cost estimate for t/Space’s proposed manned orbital spaceship: $400 million, not $500 million.

NASA wants commercial cargo ships to be developed before manned ships, so t/Space will have to do some reegineering to show how they will meet that requirement in time for the due date for proposals: February 10, 2006.