NASA Told To Expect Longer Wait Between SpaceX Demo Flights

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has informed NASA that it should expect an eight-month wait between the first and second test flights of the company’s Falcon 9-launched Dragon space capsule, according to a NASA official.

Alan Lindenmoyer, the NASA official running the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program subsidizing development of the rocket and capsule SpaceX will use to re-supply the international space station, said the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s first COTS demonstration flight remains slated for July even though the first test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket has slipped into June. However, Lindenmoyer said, the second of three COTS demos SpaceX is obliged to fly under its $278 million agreement with NASA is now not expected to occur until March 2011 — about five months later than NASA had been expecting.

Lindenmoyer said SpaceX is “putting a lot of attention” on the maiden flight of its Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket, applying extra time and money that might otherwise be spent developing hardware for the second and third COTS demonstrations.

“Putting that much attention on the first flight has used up resources that contribute to delays in the subsequent missions,” he told Space News May 27.

SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin would not address NASA’s explanation for the delay, but attributed the eight-month gap between the first and second COTS flights to the added complexity of the second mission.

“And because C2 [the second COTS demonstration flight] is a more capable spacecraft than C1, it will require additional development time,” Shanklin wrote in a May 27 response to questions from Space News.

“The push of the maiden Falcon 9 test flight is a contributing factor as well,” said Larry Williams, SpaceX vice president of strategic relations. “We are well into the fabrication of C2’s primary structures, including the capsule and heat shield, and are in process of developing and fabricating the remaining C2 components.”

SpaceX has received approximately $350 million from NASA since 2006. Of that amount, $248 million has come from COTS milestone payments and $101 million has come from progress payments on the $1.6 billion Commercial  Resupply Services contract the company won in 2008 to deliver cargo to the space station.

Williams said SpaceX’s progress on flight hardware is unaffected by the personal finances of the company’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, who told a California divorce court in February that he was out of cash and had resorted to borrowing money from friends to cover monthly household expenses.

“SpaceX is a company of 1,000 men and women developing and producing highly reliable and low cost space transportation systems. We have been financially stable with no investment from our CEO for many years,” Williams wrote in a May 28 e-mail. “SpaceX has well over $2 billion under contract … Therefore, any momentary illiquidity that Elon may be experiencing is completely irrelevant to the company and our future.”

Williams said that although Musk remains SpaceX’s largest shareholder “he is only one of a number of investors at this point.” Other large investors, he said, include Menlo Park, Calif.-based Draper Fisher Jurvetson and the Founders Fund, a San Francisco firm managed by one of Musk’s former PayPal partners.

The first Falcon 9 is at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch site awaiting certification of its flight termination system before it is cleared to attempt its first liftoff, now slated for early June.

“Due to delays in the recent GPS satellite launch, Air Force range safety officials unfortunately did not have the resources to process our financial documentation,” Shanklin said in a May 28 e-mail. “SpaceX is now looking at no earlier than Friday, June 4th for its first launch attempt.”

Although the rocket is poised to carry a Dragon capsule into orbit, the flight does not count as a COTS demonstration. The capsule built for Falcon 9’s debut is a stripped-down engineering qualification unit SpaceX added to the mission last year to transmit aerodynamic information during the vehicle’s ascent.

Lindenmoyer said SpaceX is currently holding to its July launch target for the first COTS demo, a five-hour flight meant to demonstrate that Dragon can complete multiple orbits, transmit telemetry, receive commands, maneuver, re-enter the atmosphere and make a safe water landing and recovery.

The second COTS flight test is a five-day mission during which Dragon will approach within 10 kilometers of the space station and exercise its radio cross-link to demonstrate the ability of the space station’s crew to receive telemetry from the capsule and send commands.

The third and final COTS demo, previously scheduled for March 2011 but moved to May of that year, is meant to send Dragon to berth to the station for the first time and clear the way for SpaceX to begin making routine cargo runs the following month.

Lindenmoyer said the delay in the second and third COTS demos would not slip the schedule for SpaceX’s first Commercial Resupply Services flight, which Shanklin said remains slated for June 2011.

Despite the anticipated delays for the second and third COTS flights, Lindenmoyer said SpaceX is making “overall excellent progress, with excellent engineering,” and that the company will be conducting the first COTS readiness review in the next couple of weeks.

“That will set us up for the first COTS demo planned for July now,” he said. “And even with these extended delays it’s all leading toward the Commercial Resupply Services, which is to begin by the end of next year. It still supports the operational needs of cargo delivery to the space station. So we’re okay.”

The upcoming flight readiness review for SpaceX’s first COTS demo flight was supposed to have occurred more than two years ago under the original COTS agreement NASA and SpaceX signed in late 2006. A revised agreement signed in early 2008 rescheduled the first flight readiness review to March 2009 and reduced the associated milestone payment slightly, to $5 million. NASA and SpaceX have not formalized a new milestone schedule since 2008 even though SpaceX was supposed to have completed all three COTS flights by now.