Updates on SpaceX and Orbital’s COTS progress

Much of the attention commercial spaceflight has been getting recently has been focused on NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, including, as noted here, concerns about contracting mechanisms for future phases of the program. But CCDev is very much based on the earlier Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program for developing commercial cargo transportation to and from the ISS; the success of CCDev is dependent in part on the success of COTS. And the two companies that have COTS agreements with NASA are making some news recently on their efforts.

SpaceX has, for some time, been working to get NASA to agree to combine their second and third COTS missions (their first successfully flew last December), allowing them to both approach and berth with the station on the same flight. Last Wednesday Aviation Week reported that NASA has tentatively agreed to combine the two flights, pending resolution of some issues, including the planned deployment of two small satellites during that mission. If approved, the mission would launch as soon as November 30, berthing at the ISS on December 7.

The following day, at the STS-135 post-landing press conference at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier confirmed that NASA was close to working out a deal to combine the two SpaceX flights, designed C2 and C3. “We technically have agreed with SpaceX that we want to combine those flights, but we haven’t given them formal approval yet,” he said. “We still want to go through some more analysis” on various technical aspects of the mission, he added, but said that if those issues can be worked out, combining the C2 and C3 flights made the most sense. “Overall, what we want to do is get to cargo delivery as fast as we can, and if the systems are mature enough and the design is mature enough, combining those two flights is that best way to get cargo to the ISS in the fastest manner possible.”

(While that news took place last week, there was very little notice of it then, perhaps as it was lost in the attention about the final shuttle landing. But when SpaceX tweeted effectively the same news Tuesday, although with a nine-day gap between launch and berthing, instead of seven from the AvWeek announcement, it got a lot more attention.)

The news is a little different for the other COTS awardee, Orbital Sciences. Its original plans called for a single demonstration mission of its Taurus 2 launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft in late 2010; like SpaceX, it suffered delays, pushing that mission back to later this year. Last Thursday, company officials announced that they were delaying that mission further, into next year. “We are targeting a test firing of the full stack in November, with a test launch, with a non-Cygnus payload on the top, in late December,” said Orbital senior vice president Frank Culbertson at an AIAA commercial space panel on Capitol Hill. The official COTS demo flight is now planned for late February 2012, he said, with full-fledged cargo flights to follow in the spring.

In a briefing with financial analysts earlier that day to talk about the company’s second quarter earnings, company executives blamed the delay on development of the launch site infrastructure at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, Virginia. “Work related to installing and checking out the Wallops launch complex’s propellant and pressurization management systems has taken longer than we previously anticipated, delaying the turnover of the launch pad to us by some 6 to 8 weeks from the planned date,” Dave Thompson, chairman and CEO, said.

Another issue for the Taurus 2 was a problem last month during a test firing of one of the AJ-26 engines that powers the rocket’s first stage. During the test, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, a metal fuel line ruptured, “badly damaging” the engine on the test stand, according to a Space News account of the test.

“Orbital, Aerojet, and NASA have substantially completed our analysis of the cause of this test failure,” Thompson said on Thursday’s call, and were now screening the remaining AJ-26 engines that Aerojet has. Thompson said it appears that two-thirds of the engines can be used “as-is”, but one third “will require some level of rework or repair.” That two thirds, though, would be enough to avoid any schedule delays.

1 comment to Updates on SpaceX and Orbital’s COTS progress

  • […] that sounds familiar, it should. Last month, at a press conference after the final shuttle landing, NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said the agency “technically had agreed” … but had yet to give formal approval—effectively the same situation as today. That statement […]

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