SpaceX’s COTS Milestone Progress, Payments and Delays

SpaceX has “experienced lengthy delays in completing key milestones” in its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft programs over the past two years, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

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

  • SpaceX has completed 18 of 22 original milestones to date, including two Falcon 9 launches and the initial demonstration flight of the Dragon capsule;
  • NASA has paid SpaceX $298 million out of $396 million allocated for meeting 18 original milestones and seven additional risk reduction milestones added to the program last year;
  • The company is running about two years behind schedule on the second and third Dragon demonstration flights, which are required before SpaceX can delivery cargo on a commercial basis to the International Space Station;
  • The schedule could be compressed if NASA allows SpaceX to combine the second and third Dragon demonstration flights;
  • Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, which is developing a similar cargo system, are working on “aggressive schedules” that are likely to slip further;
  • NASA has been taking appropriate steps to reduce the impact of delays on ISS operations.

The GAO report indicates a pattern of lengthening delays as SpaceX has moved from development into flight operations:

SpaceX’s first demonstration mission readiness review was completed 15 months behind schedule and its successful first demonstration mission was flown in December 2010, 18 months late. The company’s second and third demonstration missions have been delayed by almost 2 years to November 2011 and January 2012, respectively.

The report also identified the key causes of the delays:

Several factors contributed to the delay in SpaceX’s first demonstration mission readiness review and demonstration mission. These factors include, among others, delays associated with (1) launching the maiden Falcon 9 (non-COTS mission), such as Falcon 9 software and database development; (2) suppliers; (3) design instability and production; (4) Dragon spacecraft testing and software development; and (5) obtaining flight safety system approval. For example, SpaceX encountered welding issues during production of the Dragon propellant tanks and also had to redesign the Dragon’s battery.

In preparing for its second COTS demonstration flight, SpaceX has experienced additional design, development, and production delays. For example, several propulsion-related components needed to be redesigned, the Dragon spacecraft’s navigation sensor experienced development testing delays, and delays were experienced with launch vehicle tank production. For example, SpaceX’s decision to incorporate design changes to meet future CRS mission requirements has delayed the company’s second demonstration mission. Integration challenges on the maiden Falcon 9 launch and the first COTS demonstration mission have also kept SpaceX engineers from moving on to the second COTS demonstration mission.

SpaceX officials cited the completion of Dragon development efforts, NASA’s safety verification process associated with berthing with the space station, and transitioning into efficient production of the Falcon 9 and Dragon to support space station resupply missions as key drivers of technical and schedule risk going forward. For completing 18 of the 22 milestones, SpaceX has received $258 million in milestone payments thus far, with $20 million yet to be paid.

In an effort to speed up the schedule and save funds, SpaceX has proposed that the second and third Dragon demonstration flights be combined. The second flight is scheduled to conduct a flyby of the space station, with the third mission delivering a token cargo to ISS. Combining the two flights would allow SpaceX to move on to commercial cargo delivery operations earlier than planned should the mission prove successful. NASA is currently weighing the request.

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.

NASA has added $300 million to the COTS budget for “risk reduction” milestones, with SpaceX and OSC being awarded $118 million apiece.

SpaceX has completed 4 of its new milestones on time but has experienced minor delays in completing 3 others. SpaceX’s agreement with NASA was amended three times between December 2010 and May 2011 to add 18 development milestones that SpaceX must complete in order to successfully demonstrate COTS cargo capabilities. Some of the new milestones, for example, are designed to increase NASA’s confidence that SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will successfully fly approach trajectories to the space station while others are intended to improve engine acceptance rates and vehicle production time frames. Milestones completed thus far include a test of the spacecraft’s navigation sensor and thermal vacuum tests. For completing 7 of the 18 milestones, SpaceX has received $40 million in milestone payments thus far, with $78 million yet to be paid.

The table below shows SpaceX’s progress in meeting its COTS milestones since the start of the program nearly four years ago.

SpaceX COTS Milestones (2006 – Present)



Milestone Description Scheduled Completion Date Completed on Time (Yes/No) Delay if Applicable (Months) Payment Amount (Millions)
1Project Management Plan ReviewSept. 2006


2Demo 1 System Requirements ReviewNov. 2006Y$5
3Demo 1 Preliminary Design ReviewFeb. 2007Y$18.1
4Financing Round 1Mar. 2007Y$10
5Demo 2 System Requirements ReviewMar. 2007Y$31.1
6Demo 1 System Critical Design ReviewAug. 2007Y$8.1
7Demo 3 System Requirements ReviewOct. 2007Y$22.3
8Demo 2 Preliminary Design ReviewDec. 2007Y$21.1
9Draco Initial Hot-FireMar. 2008Y$6
10Financing Round 2Mar. 2008Y$10
11Demo 3 Preliminary Design ReviewJun. 2008Y$22
12Multi-engine TestSept. 2008Y$22
13Demo 2/Demo 3 System Critical Design ReviewDec. 2008Y$25
14Financing Round 3Mar. 2009Y$10
15Demo 1 Readiness ReviewMar. 2009N15$5
16Communications Unit Flight Unit Design, Accept, DeliveryMay 2009N2$9
17Demo 1 MissionJun. 2009N18$5
18Demo 2 Readiness ReviewSept. 2009a N24 (projected)$5
19Demo 2 MissionNov. 2009a N24 (projected)$5
20Cargo Integration DemonstrationJan. 2010Y$5
21Demo 3 Readiness ReviewJan. 2010a N23 (projected)$5
22Demo 3 MissionMar. 2010a N22 (projected)$5

$278 million for the completion of all milestones

$258 million paid to date

SpaceX COTS Risk Reduction Milestones (2010 – Present)

Milestone Description Scheduled Completion Date Completed on Time (Yes/No) Delay if Applicable (Months) Payment Amount (Millions)
23Modal Test Plan and SetupNov. 2010Yb$5
24Modal TestDec. 2010Y$5
25Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) Test (open loop)Dec. 2010Y$5
26Solar Array Deployment and Component Thermal Vacuum TestsDec. 2010Y$5
27Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) Test Plan (closed loop)Mar. 2011N< 1c$5
28Thermal Vacuum System Test Plan and ProcurementMar. 2011N< 1d$5
29Overall Infrastructure Plan and Long Lead ProcurementMar. 2011N< 2e$10
30Thermal Vacuum System TestsJul. 2011$20
31Test Site Infrastructure ImplementationJun. 2011$5
32Dragon Trunk Acoustic TestJun. 2011$10
33Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) Test (closed loop)Aug. 2011$5
34Design Review of Enhanced Powered Cargo AccommodationsAug. 2011$5
35Design Review of Pressurized Cargo Volume IncreaseAug. 2011$5
36Full Dragon Electromagnetic Interference/Capability Test and Second Flight-Like Hardware in the Loop SimulatorJul. 2011$10
37Dragon Cargo Racks and Hatch SimulatorAug. 2011$3
38Ground Demonstration of Enhanced Powered CargoSept. 2011$5
39Launch Site Infrastructure ImplementationSept. 2011$5
40Production Infrastructure ImplementationSept. 2011$5

$118 million for the completion of all risk reduction milestones

$40 million paid to date


$396 million for the completion of all milestones

$298 million paid to date

Sources: NASA and SpaceX

a NASA is currently reviewing a proposed amendment that would change the completion dates for milestones 18, 19, 21, and 22. In particular, Demo Mission 2 (milestone 19) would take place in November 2011 and Demo Mission 3 in January 2012.
b The fifth amendment to SpaceX’s agreement with NASA included Milestone 23 with a due date of November 2010. Because NASA did not sign this amendment until December 2010 and SpaceX completed the milestone that same month, NASA views this milestone as having been completed on time.
c SpaceX successfully completed Milestone 27 on April 18, 2011.
d SpaceX successfully completed Milestone 28 on April 28, 2011.
e SpaceX successfully completed Milestone 29 on May 10, 2011.

  • Coastal Ron

    Nice summary – reading the whole report was putting me to sleep… 😉

    It’s interesting to see the trade-off SpaceX made with regards to focusing on CRS schedule vs the COTS schedule when they delayed the COTS 2 mission to incorporate design changes to meet future CRS mission requirements. One could argue that it wasn’t costing NASA anything for the slip, since SpaceX wasn’t being paid on a T&M type contract, and it benefits NASA in the long run when they start the CRS deliveries. We’ll see if that’s the way it shakes out.