Can Space X and Orbital step up for NASA?

GAO report skeptical commercial rockets will fill NASA’s rocket gap

The lack of alternatives for supplying the International Space Station and launching science missions have all contributed to the need for commercial rockets. But delays and cost increases in those programs from Orbital Sciences Corporation and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) may force even more reliance on foreign space services.

That was part of the conclusion of a report issued today by the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office that looked at the current standing of commercial spacecraft and NASA.

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"Specifically, with the impending retirement of the space shuttle in July 2011, the United States will lack a domestic capability to send crew and cargo to the International Space Station and face a cargo resupply shortfall between 2012 and 2020 that cannot be met by international partners' space vehicles alone. International partners' vehicles include the Russian Federal Space Agency's Progress and Soyuz, the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's H-II Transfer Vehicle," the GAO stated.  "The Ares I project, which was originally intended to be operational in 2010 and to fill the gap between the retirement of the Space Shuttle program and the availability of the commercial vehicles, pushed its launch readiness date to 2015 and is now being restructured into a new program that will not be operational until at least 2016. Further, the Delta II launch vehicle, which has carried the majority of NASA's science missions over the last several years, is retiring, the impact of which is beginning to be felt by NASA's science projects. These changes have resulted in an increased need for the vehicles being developed for COTS not only to address the cargo resupply shortfall as intended, but also to support a large number of future science missions at a reasonable cost to NASA."

That is why commercial rockets are so important.  But can they come through? Here's the GAO assessment of SpaceX and Orbital.


SpaceX's agreement with NASA established 22 development milestones that SpaceX must complete in order to successfully demonstrate commercial cargo capabilities. SpaceX has successfully completed 18 of 22 milestones to date, but has experienced lengthy delays in completing key milestones since the GAO last reported on the company's progress in June 2009. SpaceX's first demonstration mission readiness review was completed 15 months behind schedule and its successful first demonstration mission was flown in December 2010, 18 months late. The company's second and third demonstration missions have been delayed by almost 2 years to November 2011 and January 2012, respectively.

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Several factors contributed to the delay in SpaceX's first demonstration mission readiness review and demonstration mission. These factors include, among others, delays associated with (1) launching the maiden Falcon 9, such as Falcon 9 software and database development; (2) suppliers; (3) design instability and production; (4) Dragon spacecraft testing and software development; and (5) obtaining flight safety system approval. For example, SpaceX encountered welding issues during production of the Dragon propellant tanks and also had to redesign the Dragon's battery.

In preparing for its second In preparing for its second commercial demonstration flight, SpaceX has experienced additional design, development, and production delays. For example, several propulsion-related components needed to be redesigned, the Dragon spacecraft's navigation sensor experienced development testing delays, and delays were experienced with launch vehicle tank production. For example, SpaceX's decision to incorporate design changes to meet future CRS mission requirements has delayed the company's second demonstration mission. Integration challenges on the maiden Falcon 9 launch and the first demonstration mission have also kept SpaceX engineers from moving on to the second commercial demonstration mission.

SpaceX officials cited the completion of Dragon development efforts, NASA's safety verification process associated with berthing with the space station, and transitioning into efficient production of the Falcon 9 and Dragon to support space station resupply missions as key drivers of technical and schedule risk going forward. For completing 18 of the 22 milestones, SpaceX has received $258 million in milestone payments thus far, with $20 million yet to be paid.


Orbital has successfully completed 15 of 19 commercial milestones to date-8 more than GAO reported on the program in June 2009. Programmatic changes and developmental difficulties, however, have led to multiple delays of several months' duration and further delays are projected for completing the remaining milestones. For example, according to Orbital officials, the demonstration mission of Orbital's Taurus II launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft has been delayed primarily due to an increase in design effort to develop a pressurized cargo carrier in place of the original Cygnus unpressurized cargo design.

After NASA awarded Orbital a CRS contract for eight pressurized cargo missions, NASA and Orbital amended their demonstration agreement to replace the unpressurized cargo demonstration mission with a pressurized cargo demonstration. This delayed existing milestones, and the schedule was revised to shift the demonstration mission from December 2010 to March 2011. Since that time, the schedule for some of Orbital's milestones has been revised again and the demonstration mission is now planned for December 2011.

NASA commercial program and Orbital officials also noted technical challenges as reasons for milestone delays. For example, Orbital officials said there are several critical Taurus II engine and stage one system tests that need to be completed by the end of the summer, but that the risk inherent in these tests is mitigated through an incremental approach to testing. Specifically, single engine testing has been successfully completed, and testing will be extended this summer to the full stage one testing. NASA and Orbital officials also noted delays in Cygnus avionics manufacturing, primarily driven by design modifications aimed at increasing the safety and robustness of the system. According to these officials, integration and assembly of the first Cygnus spacecraft has begun and is now in the initial electrical testing phase.

Additionally, the completion of the company's launch facilities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port in Wallops Island, Virginia, remains the key component of program risk. NASA program and Orbital officials cite completion of the Wallops Island launch facilities as the critical factor for meeting the commercial demonstration mission schedule. Orbital officials said additional resources have been allocated to development of the launch complex to mitigate further slips, and an around-the-clock schedule will be initiated later this summer to expedite the completion of verification testing of the liquid fueling facility, which is the primary risk factor in completing the launch facility.

For completing 15 of the 19 milestones, Orbital has received $157.5 million, with $12.5 million remaining to be paid. Appendix I depicts Orbital's progress in meeting the COTS development milestones in its agreement with NASA.

Meanwhile International Space Station officials told the GAO they have taken steps to mitigate the short-term impact of CRS flight delays through prepositioning of cargo on the last space shuttle flights, including cargo that is being launched on the planned contingency space shuttle flight in early July 2011.

Officials added that these flights and the planned European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle and Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle flights in 2012 will carry enough cargo to sustain the six person space station crew through 2012 and to meet science-related cargo needs through most of 2012. Despite these steps, NASA officials said they would still need one flight each from SpaceX's and Orbital's vehicles in order to meet science-related cargo needs in 2012. Beyond 2012, NASA is highly dependent on SpaceX's and Orbital's vehicles in order to fully utilize the space station.

NASA officials told the GAO it has no plans to purchase additional cargo flights on Russian Progress vehicles beyond 2011 and the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have no current plans to manufacture additional vehicles beyond their existing commitments or to accelerate production of planned vehicles. The GAO reported previously that if the COTS vehicles are delayed, NASA officials said they would pursue a course of "graceful degradation" of the space station until conditions improve. In such conditions, the space station would only conduct minimal science experiments.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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