Orbital’s COTS Milestone Progress, Payments and Delays

OSC's Cygnus freighter approaches the International Space Station. (Credit: OSC)

Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) is running months behind schedule on its Taurus II rocket and Cygnus freighter programs, and it is likely to experience additional delays in its “aggressive” schedule for delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The key findings of the GAO report, which was presented to a House committee last week, include:

  • OSC has completed 15 of 19 original milestones as well as five of 10 “risk reduction” milestones that were recently added to the program;
  • NASA has paid OSC $226.5 out of $288 million allocated for meeting the original and risk reduction milestones;
  • The space agency has added $118 million to Orbital’s original $170 million in COTS funding to pay for an inaugural flight of the Taurus II booster in October;
  • Both OSC and SpaceX, which is developing a similar cargo system, are likely to see further schedule slippages in delivering commercial cargo to ISS;
  • NASA has been taking appropriate steps to reduce the impact of delays on ISS operations.

The GAO report identified a number of causes for the delays:

Programmatic changes and developmental difficulties, however, have led to multiple delays of several months’ duration and further delays are projected for completing the remaining milestones. For example, according to Orbital officials, the demonstration mission of Orbital’s Taurus II launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft has been delayed primarily due to an increase in design effort to develop a pressurized cargo carrier in place of the original Cygnus unpressurized cargo design. After NASA awarded Orbital a CRS contract for eight pressurized cargo missions, NASA and Orbital amended their COTS demonstration agreement to replace the unpressurized cargo demonstration mission with a pressurized cargo demonstration. This delayed existing milestones, and the schedule was revised to shift the COTS demonstration mission from December 2010 to March 2011. Since that time, the schedule for some of Orbital’s milestones has been revised again and the demonstration mission is now planned for December 2011.

COTS program and Orbital officials also noted technical challenges as reasons for milestone delays. For example, Orbital officials said there are several critical Taurus II engine and stage one system tests that need to be completed by the end of the summer, but that the risk inherent in these tests is mitigated through an incremental approach to testing. Specifically, single engine testing has been successfully completed, and testing will be extended this summer to the full stage one (i.e., two-engine) testing. COTS program and Orbital officials also noted delays in Cygnus avionics manufacturing, primarily driven by design modifications aimed at increasing the safety and robustness of the system. According to these officials, integration and assembly of the first Cygnus spacecraft has begun and is now in the initial electrical testing phase.

Additionally, the completion of the company’s launch facilities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Port in Wallops Island, Virginia, remains the key component of program risk. NASA COTS program and Orbital officials cite completion of the Wallops Island launch facilities as the critical factor for meeting the COTS demonstration mission schedule. Orbital officials said additional resources have been allocated to development of the launch complex to mitigate further slips, and an around-the-clock schedule will be initiated later this summer to expedite the completion of verification testing of the liquid fueling facility, which is the primary risk factor in completing the launch facility.

NASA has added $300 million to the COTS budget for “risk reduction” milestones, with SpaceX and OSC being awarded $118 million apiece. OSC will use the funding for the inaugural flight of the Taurus II booster with a Cygnus mass simulator. If all goes well, OSC will launch Cygnus on its first demonstration flight in December.  Depending upon the results of the demonstration flights, OSC could begin delivering cargo to ISS on a commercial basis in 2012.

The space agency has been taking steps to mitigate the impact of delays in OSC’s and SpaceX’s cargo delivery programs by pre-positioning supplies aboard ISS. NASA has added an additional space shuttle mission by Atlantis in July to stock up the station. The GAO report indicates that commercial cargo will need to begin next year to keep the station fully functional.

NASA has taken steps to mitigate the short-term impact of CRS delays through prepositioning of cargo, some of which will be delivered on the last space shuttle flight. Despite these efforts, NASA officials said they would still need one flight in 2012 from SpaceX’s and Orbital’s vehicles to meet science-related cargo needs.

The report found that plans for the risk reduction flight are moving along nicely:

Orbital has completed 4 of its 10 new milestones on schedule and 1 of the new milestones was delayed by about 1 month. In concurrence with NASA’s request, Orbital agreed to add an initial flight test of the Taurus II launch vehicle to reduce overall cargo service risk. The test flight not only separates the risks of the first flight of Taurus II from the risks of the first flight of the Cygnus spacecraft, but provides the opportunity to measure the Taurus II flight environments using an instrumented Cygnus mass simulator. The Taurus II test flight is scheduled for October 2011.

Overall technical risks associated with Cygnus development are expected to be reduced through additional software and avionics tests. Milestones completed thus far include early mission analyses and reviews, as well as delivery of mission hardware. For completing the first 5 new milestones, Orbital has received $69 million, with $49 million remaining to be paid.

The table below shows OSC’s success in meeting milestones to date.

Original Orbital COTS Milestones (2008 – Present)

Milestone Number Milestone Description

Scheduled Completion Date

Completed on time (Yes/No) Delay, if Applicable (months) Payment Amount (Millions)
1Program Plan ReviewMar. 2008Y$10
2Demo Mission System Requirements ReviewJun. 2008Y$20
3Unpressurized Cargo Module Preliminary Design ReviewJul. 2008Y$10

COTS System Preliminary Design Review was milestone 4, but it has been renumbered as milestone 10

No longer applicableNo longer applicableNo longer applicable
5COTS Integration/Operations Facility ReviewSept. 2008Y$10
6Pressurized Cargo Module Preliminary Design ReviewOct. 2008Y$10

Unpressurized Cargo Module Critical Design Review

No longer applicableNo longer applicableNo longer applicable
8Instrumentation Program and Command ListFeb. 2009Y$10
9Completion of ISS Phase 1 Safety ReviewMar. 2009Y$10
10COTS System Preliminary Design ReviewApr. 2009N1$20

Unpressurized Cargo Module Fabrication Started

No longer applicableNo longer applicableNo longer applicable
11Pressurized Cargo Module Critical Design ReviewJul. 2009Y$10
12Cygnus Avionics TestAug. 2009Y$10
13Completion of ISS Phase 2 Safety ReviewAug. 2009N3$10
14COTS System Critical Design ReviewSept. 2009N6$10
15Service Module Core Assembly CompletedDec. 2009N8$7.5
16Service Module Test Readiness ReviewApr. 2010N7$7.5
17Service Module Initial Comprehensive Performance TestJul. 2010a N11 (projected)$5
18Launch Vehicle Stage 1 Assembly CompleteOct. 2010a N11 (projected)$2.5
19Cargo Integration DemonstrationDec. 2010Y$2.5
20Mission Readiness ReviewFeb. 2011a N8 (projected)$2.5
21System Demonstration FlightMar. 2011a N9 (projected)$2.5
Subotal: $170 million for completion of all milestones  

$157.5 million paid to date

Risk Reduction Milestones (2010 – Present)

Milestone Number Milestone Description

Scheduled Completion Date

Completed on time (Yes/No) Delay, if Applicable (months) Payment Amount (Millions)
22Mission Concept Review for Taurus II Maiden Test FlightDec. 2010Y$20
23Taurus II Maiden Flight Preliminary Mission AnalysisFeb. 2011Y$10
24Cygnus Mass Simulator Design ReviewMar. 2011Y$10
25Installation of Additional Processor in the Loop SimulatorsApr. 2011N< 1b$5
26PROX Flight Equivalent Unit Test UnitMay 2011$5
27Taurus II Maiden Flight Stage 1 Core delivered to Wallops Flight Facility (WFF)Apr. 2011Y$24
28Taurus II Maiden Flight Upper Stage delivered to WFFJun. 2011$20
29Taurus II Maiden Flight Cygnus Mass Simulator at WFF in preparation for integration with Taurus II Maiden Flight Launch VehicleJun. 2011$10
30Taurus II Maiden Flight Launch Vehicle Stage 1 Assembly CompleteJul. 2011$10
31Taurus II Maiden FlightOct. 2011$4
Subtotal: $118 million for the completion of all milestones 

$69 million paid to date

Total: $288 million for the completion of all milestones 

$226.5 million paid to date

Source: Orbital Sciences Corporation and NASA

Note: When Orbital amended its agreement with NASA in March 2009, it deleted milestones 7 and 11, and moved milestone 4 to become milestone 10. These changes are indicated in this revised schedule.

a Milestones 17, 18, 20, and 21 were amended in March 2011 to reflect updated milestone descriptions and completion dates. In particular, the System Demonstration Flight (milestone 21) is now planned for December 2011.

b Orbital successfully completed Milestone 25 on May 20, 2011.