Getting to Upmass: A Dragon’s Tale

A Station that Needs Everything
A Scrappy Startup Contracted to Ship 35.4 Metric Tons of It
Ought to be Easy Enough, Right?

SpaceX Dragon freighter at ISS. (Credit: NASA)
SpaceX Dragon freighter at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The International Space Station (ISS) is not exactly a self-sufficient outpost. The station’s occupants can’t jump into a Soyuz and pop over to an orbiting Wal-Mart when they run out of food, water or toothpaste. Everything the six astronauts need to survive — save for the random plastic wrench or replacement part they can now 3-D print — must be shipped up from the majestic blue planet 400 km below them.

Four supply ships from the United States, Russia and Japan service the station. Two American companies – Orbital ATK and SpaceX – provide resupply services under contract to NASA. The launch vehicles and spacecraft they use were developed under a public-private partnership with the space agency.

SpaceX’s Dragon supply ship speaks of the company’s ambition to fly astronauts to Earth orbit and, eventually, to Mars. To drive home the point, it even has a window — unsual for an automated cargo vessel.

The Dragon capsule is rotated into position during processing ahead of its demonstration mission to the International Space Station. The spacecraft will launch into space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Both the launcher and spacecraft are made by SpaceX. (Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann)
The Dragon capsule is rotated into position during processing ahead of its demonstration mission to the International Space Station. The spacecraft will launch into space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Both the launcher and spacecraft are made by SpaceX. (Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann)

The vehicle is composed of a capsule with a heat shield that can transport pressurized cargo to and from the space station — a capability no other supply ship possesses. Behind the capsule is the spacecraft’s trunk, a semi-enclosed area where unpressurized cargo is carried. This, too, is a unique capability among supply ships.

NASA awarded Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contracts to SpaceX and Orbital in December 2008. The space agency’s initial order from SpaceX was for 12 missions at a cost of $1.6 billion, or an averages of $133.3 million per flight.

Initially, NASA wanted the Dragons to carry 39.7 metric tons of cargo — known as upmass — to the space station. The total was later reduced to 35.4 metric tons – for an average of 2.95 metric tons per flight — in exchange for SpaceX returning cargo to Earth.

Following a successful Dragon demonstration flight to the space station in May 2012, SpaceX flew its first commercial mission in October of that year. A second resupply flight followed in March 2013.

Debris from the rupture of a Falcon 9 engine during the Oct. 7 launch.
Debris from the rupture of a Falcon 9 engine during the Oct. 7 launch.

Although both missions were successful, each one suffered a close call. On the inaugural flight, one of first stage engines on the Falcon 9 booster stopped, causing its faring coming apart. The other eight engines had sufficient reserve power to get Dragon into orbit.

However, a secondary payload, an Orbcomm OG-2 satellite, ended up in a lower than planned orbit. Due to mission rules designed to protect the space station, the satellite’s orbit could not be raised and re-entered the Earth atmosphere days later.

On the second flight in March, Dragon successfully entered orbit only to have its thrusters malfunction. Controllers managed to correct the problem with only a one-day delay in its berthing to the space station. Like vehicle splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a successful flight.

Despite two missions in the books, SpaceX had a serious problem: the company was way behind on its upmass target. The SPX-1 and SPX-2 missions had carried only 450 kg and 865 kg of cargo, respectively. These totals were well short of the average of 2.95 metric tons per flight. Total cargo delivered was only 1.315 metric tons — a shortfall of 4.585 metric tons from what was required to keep the company on target.

The shortfall was primarily the responsibility of SpaceX, according to an audit released last month by the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

“The first two missions carried smaller loads because the empty cargo vehicles were heavier than expected and the Falcon 9 rocket did not meet its planned lift capability,” according to the OIG report. “SpaceX has since addressed both of these issues with an upgrade to its Falcon 9 rocket.”
Because the shortfall was a result of limitations on SpaceX’s side, the company “provided consideration for the reduced upmass on these flights,” the audit found.

SpaceX_CRS-1_Upmass_1-6Following the upgrades, the Dragon was able to carry significantly more cargo. For the SPX-3 through SPX-6 flights, upmass ranged from 2,024 kg to 2,338 kg. In all, the four resupply missions carried 8.872 metric tons of cargo, including 7.282 metric tons of pressurized cargo and 1.59 metric tons of unpressurized cargo.

Although a significant improvement on the first two flights, the loads carried were still below the 2.95 metric tons needed to fulfill the upmass requirement. The cargo weights were also well short of the projected 3.31 metric ton capacity of Dragon.

Image above: A technician guides a cargo bag into the Dragon spacecraft at the SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann)
A technician guides a cargo bag into the Dragon spacecraft at the SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann)

The shortfall was due to both physical and programmatic limitations. The Dragon capsule only had so much space, which was limited by the large volume of certain cargo. NASA and SpaceX were also on a learning curve in determining how to most efficiently pack the spacecraft.

“With the exception of SpaceX’s first two missions (SPX-1 and SPX-2), which delivered 450 kg and 865 kg to the ISS, respectively, NASA has generally loaded Dragon 1’s pressurized module to its volumetric limit,” the OIG report said. “However, the amount of upmass stored in the module and trunk has varied by mission based on NASA’s needs and the volume and density of particular cargo.”

NASA and SpaceX gradually got better at packing supplies into the capsule. The OIG report noted that packing efficiencies and greater payload mass allowed the SPX-5 and SPX-6 vehicles to carry larger loads.

Another problem was that NASA was unable to fully use Dragon’s trunk for unpressurized cargo. The space agency placed no cargo in the trunk for the first and sixth missions. For the other four missions, the amount of cargo carried there was below the maximum possible amount.

RapidScat's two-part payload is shown in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)
RapidScat’s two-part payload is shown in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

“The ISS Program acknowledged it struggled to utilize the Dragon 1’s trunk on the early CRS-1 missions, noting that after the Space Shuttle retired a gap in procurement and planning for this type of payload existed while the commercial partners were developing transportation capabilities,” the audit found. “As a result, appropriate payloads were not ready at the time the SpaceX missions flew.”

NASA officials said they are working to fully utilize the trunk on future flights. The OIG report recommended that the space agency “consider preparing alternative unpressurized upmass payloads in the event scheduled payloads cannot be launched.

However, the space agency rejected the proposal as unreasonable.

“There is a significant amount of flight specific analysis to certify the cargo vehicle to fly with the unpressurized cargo,” NASA wrote in response. “Typically this analysis takes months to perform at considerable cost to the service provider. Costs for unpressurized payloads are in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and once a sponsoring organization has committed this level of funding, it is not reasonable to put the payload on a ‘reserve’ flight list awaiting a launch opportunity only when another payload misses its scheduled delivery date.”

Under the CRS-1 contract, NASA is responsible for manifesting the cargo for each flight. Thus, the space agency must pay the negotiated price for each mission whether it fills spacecraft to capacity or not. It is not due any of the “consideration” on pricing it had received for the SPX-1 and SPX-2 missions, where upmass shortfalls were primarily due to the limitations of SpaceX’s delivery system.

Dragon CRS-6 capsule descends under parachutes. (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon CRS-6 capsule descends under parachutes. (Credit: SpaceX)

When SPX-6 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on May 21, 2015, SpaceX was offically halfway through its initial order for 12 flights. The company had transported only 10.187 tons of cargo to the station — less than a third of the contracted amount of 35.4 metric tons. Even with NASA’s plans to maximize use of the truck section, the company was going to be about 7 metric tons short of that goal with 12 flights – the better part of three supply flights.

However, NASA and SpaceX already had that shortfall covered.

“In September 2014, NASA modified the SpaceX CRS-1 contract to extend the period of performance through December 2016, added mission pricing for calendar years 2017 and 2018, and ordered SPX-13 and SPX-14,” according to the OIG report. “NASA ordered SPX-15 in December 2014.”

At the time, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell put the value of the flight at approximately $150 million apiece for a total of $450 million. The additional orders raised the total of the CRS-1 contract to $2.05 billion for 15 flights.

By the summer of 2015, everything was looking pretty good. Resupply flights were running more smoothly, NASA and SpaceX were finding efficiencies in loading cargo into the Dragon, and the upmass shortfall had been addressed with additional flights.

But, then came June 28, 2015. A sunny Sunday in Florida. Another picture perfect launch for Falcon 9 into Florida’s blue skies. Then, two minutes 19 seconds into the flight–

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

Boom! Falcon 9’s upper stage suddenly disintegrated. A Dragon resupply ship stripped of its trunk tumbled out of control in a large white cloud. The spacecraft and 2.478 metric tons of cargo worth $118 million ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Months of work would be required before the rocket could fly again.

The pressurized cargo lost in the flight included:

  • 690 kg of food, oxygen and other consumables;
  • 573 kg of science experiments and supporting equipment for NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA);
  • 462 kg of vehicle hardware, including tanks and filter inserts for the Station’s Environmental Control and Life Support System;
    162 kg of extravehicular activity (EVA) equipment, including a spacesuit; and,
    36 kg of computer resources, including a projection screen, laptop, and power modules.

The most significant loss was located in the trunk. Lost in the accident was the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDA). The $32.4 million adapter was part of an upgrade of the space station’s docking system in preparation for commercial crew vehicles being developed by SpaceX and Boeing. The first of four flight tests of the spacecraft is scheduled for May 2017.

The second International Docking Adapter. (Credit: NASA)
The second International Docking Adapter. (Credit: NASA)

A Dragon is scheduled to carry the second IDA to the station later this month. However, a replacement adapter will not be launched until February 2018 – most likely after four tests flights by SpaceX and Boeing will be completed. The lack of a second IDA raises the risk of a failed mission if a vehicle has difficulty using the lone adapter on the station.

The accident came at the worst time for NASA and the space station program. Eight months earlier, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded, destroying a Cygnus resupply ship carrying $51 million worth of supplies to ISS. Now both of NASA’s commercial cargo suppliers were off line.

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

Two months before Falcon 9 crashed, a Russian Progress supply ship tumbled out of control in orbit after being launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Controllers were unable to save the ship, so the mission was a complete loss.

The Falcon 9 would stay grounded for six months while SpaceX addressed the cause of the accident. In the meantime, NASA sent some of the most crucial supplies aboard JAXA’s HTV-5 cargo ship, which launched in August 2015, and Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft headed for the station. Progress resupply flights resumed in July, five days after Falcon 9 crashed.

Dragon made a successful return to flight on April 8, 2016, carrying its heaviest load yet – 3,259 kg — to the space station. The spacecraft’s trunk was volumetrically full with Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM module, which was attached to the station to test inflatable habitat technology. The flight brought total upmass to just under 13.5 metric tons.

SpaceX_CRS-1_Upmass_1-8_minus7Despite the loss of nearly 2.5 metric tons of cargo on the seventh resupply flight, SpaceX believes it can still meet its 35.4 metric ton upmass requirement using the extra three Dragon flights added in 2014. NASA is more skeptical.

“SpaceX officials expect SPX-11 through SPX-15 to each carry a full load of 3,310 kg,” the OIG report reads. “However, ISS Program officials noted because the Dragon’s pressurized cargo module is volume-limited and has yet to transport more than 2,024 kg on a mission, this may not be attainable.”

SpaceX_projected_upmassFollowing the Falcon 9 failure, NASA achieved some savings on future flights.

“In the aftermath of the SPX-7 failure, NASA and SpaceX negotiated an equitable adjustment to compensate NASA for launch delays resulting from the failure,” the OIG audit found. “Most notably, SpaceX agreed to provide at no additional cost significant enhancements to the Agency’s science and operational capabilities.”

One key improvement SpaceX has made is to upgrade the power available to experiments flying aboard Dragon capsules.

“By increasing powered capability, SpaceX tripled the number of powered payloads that could be accommodated, which provides a significant enhancement to ISS science capability,” the OIG audit said. “A by-product of this redesign is the ability to reallocate spacecraft power between internal and external payloads on a flight by flight basis, adding more flexibility to accommodate various types of payloads.”

NASA officials said that although the power upgrades and other improvements could not be quantified in monetary terms, they are “just as important to the Agency and the science and research community, or in some cases, more important than dollars saved.”

While SpaceX and NASA were investigating and addressing the cause of the SPX-7 failure, they were also negotiating a further extension of the company’s supply contract through 2018.

The extension was primarily due to delays in awarding the follow-on CRS-2 contracts. The date of the contract awards was repeatedly pushed back throughout 2015, delaying the start of CRS-2 flights until 2019.

In December, NASA and SpaceX reached an agreement for an additional five missions. Industry sources estimated the value of the contract at about $700 million, or $140 million per flight. The additional orders increased the value of SpaceX’s CRS-1 contract to approximately $2.7 billion for 20 missions.

The OIG reported that in light of the SPX-7 failure, NASA was able to negotiate “significant consideration in the form of adapter hardware, integration services, manifest flexibility, and discounted mission prices for the SPX-16 through SPX-20 resupply missions.”

In January 2016, NASA split the CRS-2 contract three ways. SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada each received contracts for a minimum of six flights apiece to carry cargo to ISS between 2019 and 2024, with additional orders at NASA’s discretion.

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  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Love the tongue in cheek caption Doug.
    Great summary article.
    Could have added that Dragon now has modified code to ‘save’ herself in the event of a similar disaster and that the satellite placed in a lower orbit than required was actually a test one and apparently delivered sufficient data to enable the follow up satellites to proceed as planned IIRC. Insurance paid out as well.
    Cheers

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks.

    Given how SpaceX signed up Orbcomm for Falcon 1e, canceled it, and then made the company (and others) wait for the Falcon 9, I probably should have added that, too.

    It’s interesting that NASA declared SpaceX complete with its COTS development even though the company had not developed a rocket or spacecraft capable of fulfilling its CRS-1 contract. My guess is NASA wanted commercial deliveries to begin and was willing
    to accept low mass numbers in order to resupply the station and show
    progress.

  • pathfinder_01

    err not quite. The shuttle was going to end and Orion could not be ready in time to supply the ISS. Griffon choose to risk the ISS rather than give up on his dream of a moon landing.

    ULA is barred from developing space craft and Orbital also didn’t have a rocket(or spacecraft) that could do the job. Once it got serious(i.e. the ISS was in danger) rocket plane Krislter lost the award and Orbital got it(and they had experice developing both rocket and spacecraft).

    They didn’t make Orbcomm wait for the Falcon 9. They offered a discount if they would switch over and Orbcomm agreed.

    IMHO the shuttle was a poor choice for the role of resupply and using it showed how primitive and backwards our space program had become. Progress has been sending cargo to stations without crew since 1978! There are massive savings in costs and great gains in safety by using automated delivery. There are also cost savings by using commercially available rockets and parts.

  • duheagle

    If I was NASA, I’d have been willing to do the same. Keep in mind that by the time SpaceX delivered its first load to ISS, the Shuttles had already been retired for the better part of a year. Lower-than-planned cargo upmass on Dragon would appear to beat no cargo upmass on Shuttle fairly handily. Same applies for downmass.

    Two other nits to pick. The debris in the picture of SPX-1’s rocket plume is not from the engine, it’s from the aerodynamic fairing that covered the failed engine. Once the engine quit, the fairing tore off. Whether by design or happenstance, the fairing wasn’t strong enough to handle the brutal Max-Q-ish loads at that point in the ascent profile without an engine exhaust plume below it.

    SpaceX correctly noted, after that flight, that its engine-out fault tolerant design had been proven in flight. So had the ability of the avionics to lengthen the burn on the remaining eight engines and do everything else needed to get the payload where it was supposed to go.

    SpaceX has never come right out and said so, but I think this misadventaure may well have been the main impetus in the reconfiguration of engine geometry from the original tic-tac-toe pattern to the current circular octaweb. The octaweb layout dispenses with the corner fairings formerly needed. That would be one of those incremental improvements to Falcon 9 – and not a small one – we’ve been arguing about elsewhere. I would argue that this particular incremental improvement has definitely improved the F9’s reliability.

    As to the premature loss of the experimental Orbcomm OG-2 satellite that rode up as a secondary payload on SPX-1, the NASA safety rule that required SpaceX not to re-fire the 2nd stage and put the Orbcomm bird into the intended orbit was in place to safeguard the ISS, not the Dragon. At least that was what was written at the time.

    Given SpaceX’s later problems with re-lighting its 2nd stage, perhaps the Orbcomm bird would have been lost in the same way irrespective of the NASA safety rule. Probably would have depended upon how much of a coast interval there was supposed to be between Dragon separation and the 2nd stage re-light.

    The problems with the Dragon on SPX-2 were with thruster propellant valves that had, unknown to SpaceX, had their manufacturing process changed by the supplier without notice. SpaceX has caught a lot of grief for its high degree of vertical integration from people who think SpaceX should have availed itself much more of components from “proven” aerospace suppliers rather than “rolling it’s own” so much. Given both this episode and the infamous strut failure on SPX-7, I think a counterargument could easily be made that SpaceX perhaps didn’t go far enough with its policy of heavy vertical integration.

  • Albinas Bambukas

    “The vehicle is composed of a capsule with a heat shield capable that can transport pressurized cargo to and from the space station”

    “capable that can” doesn’t sound right. 🙂

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    RPK lost their contract because they failed to meet a financing milestone, no other reason.
    Cheers

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    … progress, or SpaceX was able to demonstrate a development path for both their F9 and Dragon Cargo Spacecrsft. Pure speculation on my part. 🙂
    Cheers

  • Douglas Messier

    You’re right. The mission rules were to protect ISS. Don’t know why I wrote Dragon.

    The other aspect of getting Dragon flights going sooner rather than later is how delayed COTS got. SpaceX’s original goal was to fly the ISS demo mission in September 2009. That didn’t happen until May 2012. That’s 2 years 8 months. It would have been even later if SpaceX had been required to fly two demo missions as originally stipulated in the contract.

    Orbital got started later. The demo flight was conducted in September 2013. Original plan had been December 2010.

  • Phil

    Nice article there, thanks!

  • P.K. Sink

    The shuttle had its flaws, but you’re the first person I’ve ever seen who has accused it of being primitive and backwards. It was a jack of all trades, and certainly had its shining moments. It has been missed by many, but, like you said, it was just too dang expensive.

  • duheagle

    Everything space-related gets delayed. The Shuttle was supposed to fly in 1977, then 1978, then 1979. Lather, rinse, repeat. No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Private enterprise is in no way exempt from this truism. Even the Shuttle’s retirement was delayed. But it occurred, nonetheless, in 2011. After that, it was COTS, hog or die for ISS. NASA, wisely, chose to run with what they had. SpaceX, to its credit, proved very nimble in steadily boosting the capability of its vehicle and lowering the cost and danger of hauling freight uphill.

  • windbourne

    Doug, Nice Job.

  • windbourne

    One question I have had with all 3 of Musk companies, is that he has an awful lot of issues with suppliers. Tesla S and X have had all sorts of issues, but Tesla blames 3rd suppliers for it.
    The same has been true with Solar City. Again, they have blame their issues on 3rd party.
    Now, to be fair, most of SC and Tesla’s issues have been in the paper with data behind it to support it. BUT, I have to wonder if there are really that many issues with 3rd parties?

  • windbourne

    While progress had been doing nice work, the idea was to have dual systems so that if one was lost, such as happened with Skylab, we would not lose the ISS.
    The shuttle is what built the ISS. There is no chance that Russia could have put items up there like the Shuttle did. The fact is, that the shuttle was NOT a good choice for general purpose day-to-day items, but it was ideal for building out the ISS.

    Now, we have to see what happens with the many new launch vehicles that are coming. We are not just talking America, but RUssia, Europe, India, South Korea, even China, North Korea, and Iran are doing rockets (well, actually missiles, but dual use).

    And to be fair, we now have Russia, Europe, with Fully Automated Docking, and America about to join that with 2 companies (Boeing and SpaceX).
    In addition, America has 2 systems and Japan with another that are semi-automated for berthing.
    So, all in all, things are moving forward from the bad old shuttle days.

  • windbourne

    well, I suspect the fact that they turned over the contract to L-Mart to do 100% of the work might also have a little something to do with them being removed from it.
    After all, they are contributing NOTHING.

  • SpaceX blamed the Falcon 9 crash on a defective strut. NASA’s investigation found there were likely contributing factors that caused the strut to fail. Stories that NASA wasn’t buying the strut alone failing circulated for many months. The OIG report was the first public information showing the results of the two investigations.

  • Thank you. Appreciate that.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thank you. Appreciate that.

  • Jim R

    “It’s interesting that NASA declared SpaceX complete with its COTS development even though the company had not developed a rocket or spacecraft capable of fulfilling its CRS-1 contract.”: Hmm, it’s called trusting your business partner, you should try it. Everybody knows the first iteration of Falcon 9 (now called v1.0, used to be called Block 1) will be replaced by a more powerful version. SpaceX advertised then called Falcon 9 Block 2’s performance as early as 2008, Block 2 later changed to v1.1 with even more performance. Before COTS Demo 2/3, SpaceX signed up several GTO customers, including ABS, Satmax and Asiasat, so NASA is not alone in trusting SpaceX to deliver the upgrade they promised.

  • Jim R

    “SpaceX has never come right out and said so, but I think this misadventaure may well have been the main impetus in the reconfiguration of engine geometry from the original tic-tac-toe pattern to the current circular octaweb.”: Nah… The octaweb arrangement was first spotted in an Iridium brochure in May 2012 (so yeah, rest assured SpaceX’s customers know everything they need to know…), several months before CRS-1. This arrangement was confirmed by Gwynne Shotwell in this article dated Sep 17, 2012: http://aviationweek.com/awin/untested-rocket-boosts-spacex-revenue-nearly-1-billion, she also explained the reason for this change, well worth reading.

  • Douglas Messier

    All well and good. But, that’s not really the only issue. It was not simply about whether SpaceX could or would upgrade its systems.

    SpaceX had a contract to deliver 35.4 tons of upmass for $1.6 billion over 12 flights. After two launches, they were the better part of two flights behind. Eventually, NASA would end up buying three more flights at an additional cost of $450 million so SpaceX could meet its upmass requirement.

  • Jim R

    No that’s not what happened, I guess the OIG report may give you some ideas but it’s wrong:
    1. NASA ordered 3 more flights because CRS-2 contract starts in 2019, and the original 12 flights runs out in 2017, if they don’t buy more flights, who’s going to cover for 2018?
    2. The 3 newly ordered flights are not used to cover for the upmass deficit in the first two flights. How can they be? 3 flights have upmass of 9 metric tons, the deficit is only about 4.6 metric tons, about half of the new ordered upmass. If NASA really wants to cover for the first two flights, they only need to order two new flights, not three.
    3. I don’t know where the 35.4 tons come from, presumably because NASA didn’t publish the contract modification. But I do know where the 39.7 tons number comes from, it’s the maximum upmass in the contract. What SpaceX has is an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract, it does not specify the exact amount SpaceX needs to send up, NASA can order whatever amount they see fit. The maximum upmass is just that, a maximum, nowhere in the contact did it say NASA will actually send this amount of cargo to ISS. Nor does the contact say this amount of upmass needs to be send in 12 flights.

  • Douglas Messier

    The mass totals, requirements and original contract terms are from the OIG report:

    “In 2009, NASA issued the first in a series of task orders to detail the expected upmass and cost of each mission. The initial contracts required SpaceX to transport 39.7 metric tons over 12 missions and Orbital 19.3 metric tons over 8 missions. These values were reduced in subsequent discussions between NASA and the companies to 35.4 metric tons for SpaceX and 18.6 metric tons for Orbital in exchange for the companies providing additional cargo and waste disposal capabilities.”

    “NASA originally ordered 12 flights from SpaceX (1 each in 2010 and 2011, 2 in 2012, 3 each in 2013 and 2014, and 2 in 2015) and 8 flights from Orbital (1 each in 2011 and 2012, and 2 each in 2013 through 2015).”

    That seems pretty clear to me. Upmass of 35.4 metric tons over 12 flights was the goal at least. Of course, things don’t always work out the same in practice. That’s what this story is about.

    As to the extensions:

    “In September 2014, NASA modified the SpaceX CRS-1 contract to extend the period of performance through December 2016, added mission pricing for calendar years 2017 and 2018, and ordered SPX-13 and SPX-14. NASA ordered SPX-15 in December 2014. In 2015, the contract was modified once again to extend the period of performance through December 2018.”

    Extensions were required due to delays in launch schedules. More data from the report relating to SpaceX’s actual progress in launching Dragons:

    2012
    Planned Launches: 2
    Actual: 1

    2013
    Planned Launches: 3
    Actual: 1

    2014
    Planned Launches: 3
    Actual Launches: 2

    2015
    Planned Launches: 2
    Actual Launches: 3 (1 failure)

    So, by the time of the contract was extended in September 2014, it was clear SpaceX was not going to complete the original order of 12 supply flights in 2015. So, the period of the contract was extended, and it was extended further the following year as it became clear that CRS-2 flights wouldn’t begin until 2019.

    Further, for the extension of the contract out to 2018, NASA ended up ordering an additional five Dragon missions for a total of 8 additional orders.

    As to the upmass shortfalls:

    ]If you look at the table in the story above that shows upmass through SPX-6, you’ll see that the shortfall was around 7 tons due to the first two flights carrying small loads and NASA not maximizing payload capacity on the other four. That requires 3 Dragon flights.

  • Jim R

    “That seems pretty clear to me. Upmass of 35.4 metric tons over 12 flights was the goal at least.”: It may be a “goal”, but it’s incorrect to say “SpaceX had a contract to deliver 35.4 tons of upmass for $1.6 billion over 12 flights.”, since that’s not what the contract says, you can read it yourself.

    Also if you add the first two flights’ upmass (about 1.3 tons) to the maximal payload Dragon can take for 10 flights (10 x 3.31 = 33.1 tons), you get about 34.4 tons for 12 flights, pretty close to the 35.4 tons figure. So it looks to me that whole point of NASA changing the number to 35.4 metric tons is to account for the shortfall of first two flights, what happened after the change to 35.4 tons has nothing to do with the first two flights.

    “Extensions were required due to delays in launch schedules. “: So you agree that the 3 additional flights have nothing to do with “SpaceX could meet its upmass requirement.”. (And again, there is no “upmass requirement” in the contract)

    “If you look at the table in the story above that shows upmass through SPX-6, you’ll see that the shortfall was around 7 tons due to the first two flights carrying small loads and NASA not maximizing payload capacity on the other four. That requires 3 Dragon flights, two to maximum capacity and another partially filled.”: Well if you insist that NASA is buying additional flights to cover the upmass shortfall, how do you explain they ordered 5 additional flights on top of the 3 mentioned in OIG report: http://spacenews.com/spacex-wins-5-new-space-station-cargo-missions-in-nasa-contract-estimated-at-700-million/?

    And if you read that article, the maximum value of the contract is $3.1B, if SpaceX is supposed to flying all the upmass in the contract with 12 flights at $1.6B, where did the extra $1.5B come from?

  • Douglas Messier

    The 12 flights delivering 35.4 tons to the station for $1.6 billion were laid out in a series of task orders. The OIG mentions “INITIAL” agreement laying out these requirements. The MAXIMUM value of the contract is $3.1 billion.

    The word “Initial” tells me that more orders were planned. “Maximum” indicates that’s the highest amount NASA would be spending under the agreement. The task orders for the 12 flights for $1.6 billion was a piece of that larger $3.1 billion pie.

    “So you agree that the 3 additional flights have nothing to do with “SpaceX could meet its upmass requirement.””

    NO. I quoted the OIG report as saying NASA extended the period of performance for the contract beyond 2015 to the end of 2016 and added mission pricing for 2017 and 2018. I believe there were 3 things were clear to NASA at that point of time:

    a. Due to delays in COTS and CRS-1, there was no way SpaceX wasn’t going to complete its initial 12 flights by the end of 2015, so they needed to extend it;
    b. They were going to order resupply flights from SpaceX for 2017-18 under the $3.1 billion maximum contract;
    c. CRS-2 wasn’t going to start sometime until the 2018-19 time period. (CRS-2 decision was pushed back in 2015).

    Given the terms of the agreement and the flexibility of IDIQ, all these moves were quite reasonable.

    As for the upmass shortfall, total delivered through first half of the original contrract (6 flights out of 12) was 10.187 metric tons. Max out the deliveries over the next six flights, you would have 19.8 metric tons for about 30 metric tons. Still short of the mark. Still need 2 more flights.

    However, if you look at the mass Dragon was actually carrying around the time it was extended — SPX-5 through SPX-7 — and you have far lower numbers: ~ 2 metric tons, ~2.4 metric tons and ~2.5 metric tons. So, you figure you’re going to be in the upper 20’s after a dozen flights. That’s assuming those mass numbers go up, but for various reasons you’re not maxing out mass, and you don’t have any failures. And remember, they’ve projected a failure rate at 1 in 6, and so far things have been perfect.

    So, NASA ordered 5 more Dragon missions on top of the 3 for the 2018 time period. Why would they do that? What’s scheduled to happen in 2017-2018 that might changes things on the space station and require more supplies?

    That’s a tough one there. Any ideas there, Jim? Anything at all?

  • Jim R

    “The 12 flights delivering 35.4 tons to the station for $1.6 billion were laid out in a series of task orders. “: Did they? You didn’t see the task orders, so you don’t know if the task orders listed 35.4 tons in it. And I have seen Orbital’s task order, there’s no upmass in it.

    “The OIG mentions “INITIAL” agreement laying out these requirements. The MAXIMUM value of the contract is $3.1 billion.”: This means the maximum upmass listed in the contract is not expected to be launched in the first 12 flights.

    “The word “Initial” tells me that more orders were planned. “Maximum” indicates that’s the highest amount NASA would be spending under the agreement. The task orders for the 12 flights for $1.6 billion was a piece of that larger $3.1 billion pie.”: Correct, and since the contract listed 39.7 as maximum upmass, and more than 12 flights are planned, it goes without saying that NASA doesn’t expect to launch 39.7 tons in 12 flights.

    “NO. “: Huh? You listed 3 reasons for NASA to extend the # of flights, none of the listed reasons have anything to do with upmass, so why are you saying NO to the statement “So you agree that the 3 additional flights have nothing to do with “SpaceX could meet its upmass requirement.””? You can’t just say no without reason, at least you’re not supposed to…

    “As for the upmass shortfall, total delivered through first half of the original contrract (6 flights out of 12) was 10.187 metric tons. Max out the deliveries over the next six flights, you would have 19.8 metric tons for about 30 metric tons. Still short of the mark. Still need 2 more flights.”: Besides the first two flights, the rest of the shortfall is because NASA couldn’t pack enough mass into Dragon, it has nothing to do with SpaceX. Thus it doesn’t support your statement “After two launches, they were the better part of two flights behind. Eventually, NASA would end up buying three more flights at an additional cost of $450 million so SpaceX could meet its upmass requirement.”.

    “However, if you look at the mass Dragon was actually carrying around the time it was extended — SPX-5 through SPX-7 — and you have far lower numbers: ~ 2 metric tons, ~2.4 metric tons and ~2.5 metric tons. “: Again, this has nothing to do with your statement, those low numbers are NASA’s problem.

    “So, NASA ordered 5 more Dragon missions on top of the 3 for the 2017-2018 time period. Why would they do that? What’s scheduled to happen in 2017-2018 that might changes things on the space station and require more supplies?”: Well what ever the reason, it is not because “If you look at the table in the story above that shows upmass through SPX-6, you’ll see that the shortfall was around 7 tons due to the first two flights carrying small loads and NASA not maximizing payload capacity on the other four. That requires 3 Dragon flights, two to maximum capacity and another partially filled. Looking at the below capacity upmass totals for the first half of the original 12 flights, three flights make perfect sense.”, what you said here is simple incorrect, you just don’t want to admit it.

  • Douglas Messier

    So you’re saying the OIG description of the requirements is wrong?

    Commercial crew set to start in 2018. That was the question i was going to see if you could answer.

  • Jim R

    “So you’re saying the OIG description of the requirements is wrong?”: Based on the published contract, I think so. I won’t rule out the contract was modified and the modification is not public, but even if we go with what OIG has said, the numbers do not support your assertion that the 3 newly ordered flights are used to cover for the upmass deficit in the first two flights. If NASA was able to load every Dragon after the first 2 flights to the max load of 3.3 tons, they can meet the 35.4 metric tons target or come very close to it.

    “Commercial crew set to start in 2018. That was the question i was going to see if you could answer.”: So? I’m not sure this is relevant to our discussion. What it shows is that NASA is buying up flights without any regards to the total upmass number quoted in the OIG report.

  • Douglas Messier

    “Based on the published contract, I think so.”

    I doubt that. This would be a pretty fundamental thing to get wrong. OIG provided a draft of the report to NASA for review. Hard to believe NASA wouldn’t have caught such a basic mistake. Cargo managers would not let the OIG misrepresent the terms of its agreements with the companies.

    The original contract only guaranteed the vendors 20 metric tons apiece. This was deemed the minimum required for the companies to close their business cases. Clearly, NASA had more in mind.

    Perhaps a better way to say this is that between the low upmass totals on flights 1 and 2 and the subsequent underutilization of subsequent flights (due both to inability to fully use the trunk and the volumetric limitations of the capsule), NASA needed to order additional flights to reach the 35.4 metric ton upmass target. It’s possible they would have ordered fewer than 8 additional flights if they had met the upmass on the earlier flights.

    OTOH, it probaby would have ordered many more cargo flights from SpaceX and Orbital if commercial crew hadn’t been so delayed. You asked me how to explain the five additional flights for 2018. My answer to that is commercial crew visits and the 1 additional astronaut on the station on a permanent basis would require additional cargo missions.

  • Jim R

    “I doubt that. This would be a pretty fundamental thing to get wrong. OIG provided a draft of the report to NASA for review. Hard to believe NASA wouldn’t have caught such a basic mistake. Cargo managers would not let the OIG misrepresent the terms of its agreements with the companies.”: That’s pretty easy to find out, just submit a FOIA to get SpaceX’s contract modifications and task orders, that’s what a journalist is supposed to do, no?

    “Perhaps a better way to say this is that between the low upmass totals on flights 1 and 2 and the subsequent underutilization of subsequent flights (due both to inability to fully use the trunk and the volumetric limitations of the capsule), NASA needed to order additional flights to reach the 35.4 metric ton upmass target. It’s possible they would have ordered fewer than 8 additional flights if they had met the upmass on the earlier flights.”: Then you admit the characterization that “After two launches, they were the better part of two flights behind. Eventually, NASA would end up buying three more flights at an additional cost of $450 million so SpaceX could meet its upmass requirement.” is incorrect, in fact missing the so called 35.4 metric ton upmass target has very little (only about 1 metric ton) to do with flights 1 and 2, and more to do with NASA couldn’t pack enough mass into Dragon.

    Of course I think the whole upmass target is nonsense anyway, but you’ll never listen, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    “You asked me how to explain the five additional flights for 2018. My answer to that is commercial crew visits and the 1 additional astronaut on the station on a permanent basis would require additional cargo missions.”: Well then apparently the so called upmass target is not written in stone? It can change based on circumstances? If so why’re you so fixated on NASA reach this magical number? Has it occurred to you that while the upmass target can move up due to commercial crew, it can move down due to other circumstances?

  • Douglas Messier

    As I explained in the article, the upmass shortfalls were not the fault of any one party. SpaceX couldn’t deliver a full load on the first two flights. For that, NASA got accommodations. The lack of full upmass on subsequent flights was partly due to volume limitations in the capsule, partly due to them trying to figure out how to pack the pressurized cargo efficiently, and partly due to NASA not fully utilizing the trunk.

    I’m going to trust the NASA OIG on this one. Why would I need to file a FOIA for something that the OIG published that the management of the program they were writing about vetted? Against that, I have an anonymous commenter on a blog who thinks the whole upmass thing is nonsense.

    Well, good for you. Congratulations on your opinion. Since you don’t believe the report, you file a FOIA. Let me know what you come up with. Good luck.

    Again, there was this initial order for upmass (35.4 tons) over a projected number of flights (12). For various reasons, that’s not happening. So, there were more flights because NASA needed to fly more stuff and the CRS-1 flights were behind schedule and the CRS-2 contracts got delayed.. So, my figuring on this is:

    12 flights — 35.4 metric tons (initial order)
    8 flights — additional metric tons
    20 flights — 35.4 metric tons + additional metric tons

    OK. One final excerpt from the OIG report that you don’t find credible. I don’t imagine it will do any good, but what the hell. I’ve not got anything better to do at this hour.

    Note the text in bold showing that SpaceX’s belief that it will meet NASA’s remaining upmass requirements by flying heavily payloads. So, there are clearly upmass requirements to fulfill. (Table 3 is the one above that shows SpaceX’s projections of what it will carry for flights 9-15.)

    “After the SPX-7 failure and through a series of negotiations, NASA modified SpaceX’s CRS-1 contract in December 2015 to add five additional flights – SPX-16 through SPX-20 – at discounted prices, as well as hardware, integration activities, and manifest flexibility at no cost to the Agency. In addition, the revised contract provides that SpaceX will satisfy NASA’s remaining upmass requirements, and the company plans to fly heavier payloads on future missions. The heavier payloads are possible because the ISS Program has resolved past difficulties in maximizing the use of the unpressurized section of the cargo capsule. With these improvements, SpaceX officials expect SPX-11 through SPX-15 to each carry a full load of 3,310 kg, as shown in Table 3. However, ISS Program officials noted because the Dragon’s pressurized cargo module is volume-limited and has yet to transport more than 2,024 kg on a mission, this may not be attainable.

  • Jim R

    “Well, I suggested a different, more accurate way to describe the orders than the way I described them in the initial piece. So yes, I think my initial description of the orders were probably wrong.”: Ok then, that’s all I’m arguing for.

    “Note the text in bold showing that SpaceX’s belief that it will meet NASA’s remaining upmass requirements by flying heavily payloads. So, there are clearly upmass requirements to fulfill.”: I have a different interpretation on this, but there’s no point arguing it without seeing the actual modified contract and task orders. Let’s wait and see, I’m sure we’ll get to see it someday.