Orbital Space Station Resupply Plan Includes ULA Atlas rocket

By Doug Mohney December 10, 2014

Late yesterday, Orbital Sciences Corporation  provided its latest update on how it will deliver cargo to the International Space Station in the wake of the October 28 Antares launch failure at Wallops Island, Virginia. The company plans to buy at least one United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket in 2015 to fulfill its obligations under a $1.9 billion NASA CRS contract and restart Antares launch operations from Wallops in 2016. It's an aggressive schedule, but Orbital says ISS will get the cargo by the end of 2016 with no cost increase to NASA or any "material adverse financial impacts in 2015 or future years" to Orbital.

The next Orbital Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a ULA Atlas V rocket in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second Atlas V in 2016 "if needed," according to the company.  Cygnus will be able to carry nearly 35 percent more cargo to ISS than previously planned for CRS missions in 2015, due to Atlas greater lift capacity and an already planned one meter increase of Cygnus' cargo module.

A new Antares propulsion upgrade is also being accelerated.  Orbital hasn't specified exactly what is being done to the Antares first stage, with the first "new propulsion systems" expected to arrive in mid-2015 at Wallops Island to begin vehicle integration and testing.   The new upgrade enables Cygnus to carry 20 percent more cargo per launch than previous plans.

Based upon previous comments by company officials and various media reports, two liquid fueled Aerojet AJ-26 engines in the Antares first stage will be replaced by one or two Russian-made liquid fuel engines, with the most likely candidate being a single engine similar to or derived from the RD-180. Orbital had long term plans to upgrade Antares with a better performing engine for replacing the AJ-26s after it fulfilled the CRS contract.  

Failure of the October 28, 2014 launch has been traced to an AJ-26 turbopump failure, with two prior losses of engines in U.S. testing. The AJ-26s were originally built in the 1960s and 1970s for a Soviet moon rocket project then stored in a warehouse until Aerojet bought them in the 1990s.

Plans for repairs to the Mid-Atlantic Region Spaceport (MARS) pad at Wallops Island have been finalized.  Repairs are expected to be "substantially completed" by the fall of 2015, with recertification to fly expected by the end of 2015.

Left open for now is what parties are picking up the bills. The State of Virginia owns the equipment and facilities at the MARS spaceport. Virginia's U.S. Senate delegation is reportedly seeking federal funds for the estimated $20 million in infrastructure repairs.

Orbital has a combination of insurance and already-allocated funds to purchase the Atlas V replacement launch and accelerate the engine upgrade to Antares. The company may also be receiving some sort of monetary compensation from Aerojet due to the apparent failure of the AJ-26 engine about 16 seconds into flight, causing the catastrophic loss of the mission.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing Editor

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