Orbital to Buy At Least One Launch for Cygnus from ULA

Orbital to Buy At Least One Launch for Cygnus from ULA

Orbital Sciences Corporation gave more details today about its plans to fulfill its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of its October Antares rocket failure.

Antares exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014, destroying its Cygnus cargo spacecraft filled with cargo destined for the ISS.   It was Orbital’s third operational cargo flight to the ISS.  An investigation is ongoing, but Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson indicated last month that the AJ26 rocket engines are the likely culprit.  Orbital was already in the process of deciding to switch to a different rocket engine, but still has not announced which one it has selected.  The AJ26 is a Russian NK-33 engine built in the 1970s and imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Thompson said last month that his company would purchase launch services from another company to take Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS and still meet its contractual commitment to deliver 20 tons of cargo by the end of 2016.   An upgraded version of Cygnus capable of handling more tonnage already was in development and Orbital will combine the cargo that was to be launched on five more missions into just four.

Today, Orbital announced that the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket is its choice for at least one Cygnus mission in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second in 2016 if needed.  Between the greater lift capability of the Atlas V compared to Antares, and the more commodious Cygnus, the mass to ISS will increase by 35 percent.

Meanwhile, the company is proceeding with its plans to replace the AJ26 engines with something new, though the announcement today still did not identify what it is.  Three launches of the upgraded Antares are planned in 2016.  The upgraded Antares with the new Cygnus will increase the mass to ISS by 20 percent over the original Antares and Cygnus.

Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.  The October 28 explosion damaged the pad and surrounding structures, though not as badly as many feared.  Orbital said today that repairs will be completed and the pad recertified by the end of 2015.

Orbital, which is in the middle of a merger with ATK, said in its statement today that its revised approach to meeting the CRS contract commitments “is not expected to create any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years…” 

The CRS contract is for services provided to NASA using spacecraft and launch vehicles developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, colloquially known as “commercial cargo.”  COTS was a public-private partnership where both the government and the private sector invested in developing these new capabilities with a goal of reduced costs to the government compared to a traditional contracting mechanism.  Skeptics are closely watching how Orbital and NASA cope with the Antares accident and whether the federal government must shoulder any of the costs.


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