NASA: SpaceX, Orbital Moving Along Toward 2012 Cargo Flights

Cygnus service module. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

NASA PR — Both of NASA’s COTS partners continue to make technical progress toward developing and demonstrating their cargo transportation capabilities. However, schedules for their demonstration flights have been delayed from the original aggressive targets.

When NASA signed the original Space Act Agreement (SAA) with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in August 2006, their first, second and third COTS demonstration flights were planned for September 2008, June 2009 and September 2009 respectively. SpaceX successfully flew the first demonstration mission in December 2010, launching a Dragon capsule into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket and recovering it off the coast of California.

A Dragon capsule in preparation for its maiden voyage to the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

NASA announced on December 9th that SpaceX’s next COTS demonstration flight is now targeted for February 7th. SpaceX continues to make steady technical progress toward this flight. Currently, all flight vehicle elements are at Cape Canaveral for launch, and all qualification and acceptance testing is complete. SpaceX is in the final stages of the safety review process and has begun International Space Station (ISS) integrated software stage testing with NASA, the final major activities required to clear the way for the Demonstration Mission. A third SpaceX COTS demonstration mission may not be necessary if all ISS rendezvous and berthing objectives are accomplished successfully on the next flight.

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s (OSC) schedule has seen similar shifts. When NASA signed the original SAA with OSC in February 2008 to demonstrate their Cygnus cargo vehicle, the demonstration flight was originally planned for December 2010. Currently, Orbital is planning the maiden launch of their newly named Antares launch vehicle (previously referred to as “Taurus II”) in late February or March 2012, and the COTS demonstration flight to the ISS in April. NASA amended the OSC SAA last year to add a risk-reduction test flight of OSC’s launch vehicle prior to the Cygnus Demonstration flight.

At present, the initial Antares launch vehicles are being integrated at the Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) in Virginia. The engines were recently mounted to the first stage in preparation for integrated vehicle hot fire testing on the launch pad. The new launch complex at WFF is nearly complete and is the pacing item for the upcoming test firing and demonstration flights.

The schedule delays experienced by our partners over the life of the COTS Program are indicative of the challenges associated with developing and flying new, highly complex launch vehicles and spaceflight systems. NASA is working with both COTS Partners to facilitate their development activities and overcome schedule issues. However, safe spaceflight is the primary objective, not schedule. Also, the addition of the final Shuttle mission (STS-135) gave the ISS the flexibility to maintain a six-person crew into FY 2013 without any commercial cargo flights.