Orbital Sciences Corp and Space Exploration Technology (SpaceX) are pushing to the new year the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demo missions originally planned for the end of 2011. According to NASA officials, the delay is caused by both technical and logistical reasons.
The Taurus 2 and the Falcon 9, developed respectively by Orbital Sciences and SpaceX under the framework of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, are expected to perform regular supply missions to the International Space Station starting in 2012. Before starting regular service, the launch systems and the associated capsules need to complete a series of COTS flight demonstrations.
Orbital was deemed to complete a single demonstration flight in December 2010. The test date slipped several times; then, in 2011, NASA requested an additional risk reduction mission to test the Taurus 2 launch vehicle with a dummy payload. According to Orbital Sciences spokesman Barron Beneski, Taurus 2 is unlikely to make its maiden flight this year: “No one should be surprised if that updated schedule shows a slip to the right,” he wrote in an email, “This is a difficult and complex project.” The main reason for the delay was the completion and certification of the rocket propellant pressurization facilities at the Taurus 2’s Wallops Island, Virginia: “Even a small schedule slip of a week or two would put the test flight into 2012,” said Beneski.
SpaceX, which was originally expected to complete three COTS flight demos by September 2009, has performed a successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in December 2010. The company is pushing forward with his proposal to combine the last two demos into a single mission, which would perform a rendezvous and docking of the Dragon space capsule with the International Space Station (ISS). While NASA has expressed interest for SpaceX proposal to combine the two tests, other ISS partners, and in particular Russia, have expressed their objection. The test, which was planned for November 2011, has been delayed by the schedule disruption which followed the August 24 loss of a Progress supply spacecraft. According to NASA, this test flight will happen no earlier than February: the date is driven by the need for specialized hardware, which will reach the ISS on a Progress spacecraft scheduled for the end of January.