Can commercial space technology get off the ground?

NASA’s commercial space technology is seemingly at a crossroads.

While NASA's commercial partners such as SpaceX and Orbital have made steady progress in developing space cargo transportation technology, they have recently fallen behind their development schedules.  Combine that with the fact that the most critical steps lie ahead, including successfully launching new vehicles and completing integration with the space station and you have a hole that will be tough to climb out of.

Those were the two main conclusions of a Government Accountability Office report on the status of the commercial space world this week.

The GAO went on to say after the planned retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, NASA will face a cargo resupply shortfall for the International Space Station of approximately 40 metric tons between 2010 and 2015.  Specifically, NASA estimates that it will need a total of 82.7 metric tons of dry cargo delivered to the ISS between 2010 and 2015 to meet crew needs and to support maintenance and scientific experiments.

Commercial partners' vehicles will transport almost half of this cargo and are scheduled to fly more cargo delivery missions than the space shuttle and international partners' vehicles combined-including 14 of the last 19 missions. Delays in the availability of commercial partners' vehicles to fill the cargo resupply gap would result in diminished usage of the space station.

NASA has communicated regularly with its partners through quarterly and milestone reviews and provided them with technical expertise to assist in their development efforts and to facilitate integration with the space station. As of the end of fiscal year 2008, NASA has spent $290.1 million, with 95% of project funding spent on milestone payments to Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partners, the GAO said. Should commercial partners suffer future delays or be unable to provide cargo resupply services when anticipated, NASA will be unable to fully utilize the space station as intended.

Some of the GAO's key findings:

-SpaceX successfully completed its first 14 development milestones on time and is in the process of testing, fabricating, and assembling key components. However, a schedule slip in the development of its launch vehicle has contributed to anticipated delays of 2 to 4 months in most of its remaining milestones, including upcoming demonstration missions. Its first demonstration mission has been delayed from June 2009 to no earlier than September 2009, and its third demonstration mission has been delayed from March 2010 to no earlier than May 2010. NASA is currently evaluating the effect of potential further delays.  SpaceX has received $234 million in milestone payments thus far, with $44 million yet to be paid.

-SpaceX has cited the range safety approval process as a significant risk that could result in schedule slips. SpaceX has made progress addressing many of the USAF's requirements, and it has installed launch infrastructure including components of the Falcon 9 fueling system and the hangar structure where the Falcon 9 stages will be integrated and mated with the Dragon space vehicle. However, officials from the 45th Space Wing expressed concerns that SpaceX's aggressive schedule may not give SpaceX sufficient time to submit its requests to modify US Air Force range safety requirements or give the USAF sufficient time to review, validate, and approve SpaceX's facilities and launch operations before upcoming demonstrations.

-Orbital has successfully completed 7 of 19 development milestones thus far, but has experienced delays in the development of its launch vehicle. Orbital and NASA have recently amended their agreement to demonstrate a different cargo transport capability than had been originally planned, delaying its demonstration mission date from December 2010 until March 2011. Orbital has received $80 million in milestone payments thus far, with $90 million yet to be paid.

-Orbital's Cygnus visiting vehicle is not designed to return cargo to Earth, although it can dispose of trash from the space station. Orbital estimates that its Cygnus space platform will be able to deliver or dispose of about 2 metric tons (approximately 4,400 pounds) of pressurized cargo on a single mission. Because the Cygnus is yet to be qualified and flown, the final cargo capacity of the Cygnus is yet to be known. Once development is completed, Orbital estimates that in an enhanced configuration, its pressurized cargo module could provide as much as 2.7 metric tons (approximately 5,950 pounds) of cargo delivery and disposal in a given mission. The Cygnus's cargo capacity for a given mission will vary depending on the density of the cargo and how it is packed.

-Other options for transporting cargo to the space station are limited. NASA has purchased the equivalent of three Russian Progress vehicles for use in 2010 and 2011, but it has no plans to purchase any additional vehicles beyond 2011. According to NASA officials, there is a 24- to 30-month lead time to manufacture the Progress should NASA decide to procure additional vehicles. NASA plans to use six Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles for missions between 2010 and 2015 and four European Automated Transfer Vehicles between 2010 and 2013. NASA officials told us that the Japanese and European space agencies have no plans to manufacture additional vehicles beyond their current commitments. In addition, NASA's new crew exploration and launch vehicles, Orion and Ares I, designed to replace the space shuttle, are not expected to be available until 2015.

-Delays in the availability of commercial vehicles to fill the cargo resupply gap would result in diminished usage of the space station. The ISS program office has identified the 40 metric ton (approximately 88,000 pound) cargo resupply shortfall as a top program risk, and its risk summary report states that a delay in 2010 in the availability of commercial partners' vehicles would lead to a significant scaling back of NASA's use of the space station for scientific research. If there were a delay in 2011, NASA could no longer maintain a space station crew of six astronauts and its ability to conduct scientific research would be compromised.

-Space development programs are by nature complex and rife with technical obstacles that can easily result in development delays. In our recent report on selected large-scale NASA projects, we found that 10 of the 13 projects that we reviewed had experienced significant cost and/or schedule growth from their project baselines. Commercial partners must develop and demonstrate new launch and space vehicles, launch and mission operations capabilities, and achieve integration with the space station in a 3- to 4-year period.

Such findings won't look good to the panel of experts convening to conduct a wide-ranging review the future of human space flight.  The "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans"  will be led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin and will examine ongoing and planned NASA development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and offer options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement.

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