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.
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