SpaceX, OSC on Track for COTS Flights By End of Year

Illustration of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft arriving at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
December is going to be a busy month for NASA’s COTS program.  If all goes well, a SpaceX Dragon will be berthed with the International Space Station (ISS) on Dec. 9.  Also in December, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s new Taurus II rocket will soar into space from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia.

If the flights are successful, they will pave the way for commercial cargo delivery delivery to ISS during the first quarter of next year by Dragon and OSC’s Cygnus freighter.

Aviation Week reports that both companies are proceeding toward launching these missions before the end of the year. SpaceX is feeling confident of success.

The momentum increased last year, and hopefully if all goes well we’ll be docking with the International Space Station [ISS] in December,” says Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief technical officer. Describing the planned launch of its second test Dragon spacecraft as its “top priority,” Musk says the current plan calls for the third Falcon 9 launch vehicle to place the Dragon in orbit from where it will rendezvous and berth with the ISS on Dec. 9. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) flight is required to clear the way for the first of 12 regular cargo delivery flights ordered under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract NASA awarded the company in 2008.

The weekly also reports on SpaceX’s ambitious plans to become the top rocket company in the world:

Outlining SpaceX’s ambitious growth strategy, President ­Gwynne Shotwell says a production increase is aimed at supporting the assembly of engines for the coming flurry of Falcon 1 and 9 launches. The company also continues to bolster its workforce, passing the 1,500-employee mark for the first time at the start of August after seeing a 50% uptick in payroll last year.

“We have built about 60 engines so far this year, and will build another 40 by year-end,” says Shotwell. Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Joint Propulsion Conference here, Shotwell explains that the eventual “plan is to build up to 400 engines per year, that’s our target.” The expansion is built on booked revenues of $3 billion through 2017, part of which was earned by orders for 14 new Falcon 9 launches placed “within the last year,” she says. SpaceX is also “negotiating three more right now,” she adds. The launch manifest lists 40 sold flights, including 33 Falcon 9s, plus five options….

Following the COTS flight, SpaceX’s focus will shift to convincing the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office that the Falcon 9 can provide a competitive alternative to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. “That’s our next big priority after ISS,” says Musk, who notes that the company recently began construction of its Falcon Heavy launch site at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. The first Falcon Heavy flight is targeted for 2013.

Meanwhile, OSC has determined that a June 9 test-stand fire that destroyed an AJ-26 rocket engine destined for the first Taurus II flight was caused by a leaking manifold in the 40-year-old engine that Aerojet purchased from the Russians. OSC is checking the other engines for corrosion and does not expect the problem to delay the rocket’s first flight.

“We don’t expect that this is the driving piece in the schedule,” the Orbital spokesman says. “We think we will have engines capable of carrying out the first couple of missions. The long pole in the tent right now has been the construction process for the launch site and the infrastructure.”

Delays that Beneski characterized as routine for large construction projects have slowed work on the Taurus II pad at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a Virginia state facility on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The latest plan calls for construction and certification of pad facilities to be completed in time for a static hot-fire test there late in September or early October. Launch of an initial risk-reduction flight, which will be carried out with extra funds in the fiscal 2011 spending plan Congress approved for NASA, would follow in mid-December.

That would set up a combined rendezvous, proximity operations and berthing test flight for the Taurus II and its Cygnus cargo capsule in mid-February, which Orbital must accomplish to get paid under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed-money effort to spur private investment in International Space Station resupply vehicles. Beyond that, Orbital Sciences believes it has enough engines on hand to fly out the eight flights covered in its $1.9 billion follow-on station-resupply contract.

It will be exciting to watch these flights. If they are successful, it will vindicate NASA’s move toward private industry taking an increased role in orbital operations.