WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) loaded its Dragon space capsule with simulated cargo and powered up the spacecraft in mid-December, earning a $5 million payout under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA.

SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said NASA officials were on hand at the company’s Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters the week of Dec. 14 to observe the demonstration.

SpaceX and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. were awarded NASA contracts in December 2008 worth a combined $3.5 billion to haul cargo to the international space station once the space shuttle is retired from service.

SpaceX is developing the reusable Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 launcher with the aid of $278 million in NASA funding the company is eligible to receive under a COTS agreement that ties cash payments to the completion of specific development milestones, including three separate flight demonstrations.

To date, SpaceX has completed 16 of its 22 COTS milestones, earning a total of $248 million.

But with the Falcon 9 rocket still at least a couple of months from making a launch debut once planned for 2007, SpaceX skipped over four flight-related milestones to conduct the cargo loading demonstration.

NASA spokeswoman Ashley Edwards said COTS providers are permitted to complete milestones out of sequence and still get paid.

“Completion of preceding milestones is not required for payment of a milestone completed out of sequence,” Edwards said. “According to the terms of our COTS Space Act Agreements, NASA may make a milestone payment when it is satisfied that the success criteria for that milestone has been met.”

SpaceX originally envisioned conducting last month’s cargo-loading demonstration between Dragon’s second and third COTS flights. While both those flights remain on the SpaceX manifest for 2010, the company has yet to announce firm launch dates for the Falcon 9 inaugural flight and the first COTS flight. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said Jan. 4 that Falcon 9’s maiden launch was on track for sometime between the end of February and the beginning of May. Although SpaceX says it will include a Dragon capsule on Falcon 9’s debut, the launch will not count as a COTS flight.

With the cargo-loading milestone now completed, SpaceX can earn no more COTS money until it is ready to tackle three flight demos worth a combined $30 million, including $5 million for each flight readiness review required before each mission.

Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences is more than a year away from demonstrating its Cygnus cargo vehicle, which will launch atop a Taurus 2 rocket also still in development.

Orbital won its $171 million COTS award 16 months after SpaceX and had to renegotiate the agreement in March 2009 to demonstrate a different cargo capability than NASA originally requested. That helped delay the maiden flight of Cygnus and its Taurus 2 medium-lift rocket from December 2010 to the end of March 2011.

Although the company is several months behind in meeting a critical design review milestone for Cygnus and Taurus 2, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said the company expects to complete the milestone by the end of February, at which point the company will have collected $140 million in COTS payouts from NASA. Beneski said Orbital passed its 13th milestone in September, a safety review worth $10 million.