NASA expects quick start to SpaceX cargo contract
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: June 2, 2012
The top NASA manager in charge of the agency's commercial cargo transportation program hailed SpaceX's demonstration flight to the International Space Station as a success and indicated approval for continued resupply missions under a $1.6 billion contract would be a mere formality.
The SpaceX-owned spacecraft will be the only vehicle in the space station's fleet of resupply freighters able to return to Earth intact with cargo. Other robotic cargo spacecraft built in Russia, Europe and Japan dispose of trash and burn up in the atmosphere.
Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial cargo development program, said the flight looked to be 100 percent successful.
"We'll get a quick-look report from SpaceX next week, and then we'll await a final post-flight report several weeks later," Lindenmoyer said.
NASA invested $396 million into SpaceX under a public-private partnership agreement signed in 2006. The space agency released payments to the California-based company as it met design, testing and flight milestones.
Following the announcement of the space shuttle's retirement, NASA started investigating new ways to transport critical spare parts, food, experiments, and other geat to the space station. But no companies had the ability to do the job, and NASA wished to set its sights on more ambitious expeditions into the solar system.
After surveying the market, NASA established the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to help fund private development of rockets and spacecraft to resupply the space station.
"You have turned those hopes into a reality today," Lindenmoyer said to Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and chief designer, following Thursday's splashdown.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. won agreements with the COTS program. Orbital's first flight to the space station could launch as soon as October.
SpaceX has received $381 million under the agreement to date, and the remaining $15 million will be paid at the conclusion of the post-flight review.
"I just don't think it's going to take us very long to make the determination this was an extremely successful mission, and they should be well on the way to starting services," Lindenmoyer said.
SpaceX's next launch to the space station is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 24. The Falcon 9 rocket for the flight is being checked out in a hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and the Dragon payload will be shipped to the Florida launch site as soon as next month, according to SpaceX officials.
"We became your customer today," Lindenmoyer said to Musk. "I believe we're very close to having you provide cargo resupply services to the station on a regular basis."
SpaceX and NASA signed a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract in December 2008 for 12 flights to the space station through 2015. Officials expect a cadence of about three or four missions per year.
But first, NASA's separate COTS agreement with SpaceX called for three test missions to prove out the Falcon 9 and Dragon.
The first COTS test flight was in December 2010, during which SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket and a simplified Dragon capsule into orbit, flew the vehicle twice around the world, and successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
SpaceX proposed changing the COTS manifest early 2011, instead offering to fly one mission to achieve the objectives of both flights. NASA agreed, but the launch was delayed one year for SpaceX to complete ground testing of the spacecraft's unflown components needed to reach the space station. The space agency also carefully verified Dragon's software code was robust enough for the mission, triggering a delay of several months.
NASA and SpaceX outlined more than 30 test objectives for the flight, and Dragon met all of them through Thursday's return to Earth, according to Lindenmoyer.
"I was looking at the criteria we set for the mission, and pretty much every one of them looked solid," Lindenmoyer said. The only thing left to go is actual recovery of the cargo."
SpaceX will hand over a few items from Dragon's cargo cabin as soon as Saturday, when the capsule reaches the Port of Los Angeles on the deck of a 185-foot recovery barge.
The rest of the equipment returned by Dragon will be retrieved when the spacecraft reaches SpaceX's test facility in McGregor, Texas, where NASA officials will take custody of the rest of the ship's 1,367-pound cargo cache.
Future Dragon flights will haul up to 7,300 pounds of pressurized and external cargo to the space station. Dragon can return up to 5,500 pounds of internal equipment to Earth.
"We look forward to doing lots more missions in the future, and we will continue to upgrade the technology and push the frontier of space transportation," Musk said.
SpaceX has a backlog of about 40 commercial and NASA launches with the Falcon 9 rocket, and the company plans to modify the Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station.
SpaceX is competing with other commercial firms for NASA funding to support the crew effort, and the agency expects to announce awards in August.