NASA's Actual Resupply Efforts are Weirder than "The Martian"

November 06, 2015
By: Doug Mohney

In "The Martian,"  (*spoiler alert*) NASA's emergency plan for a supply launch to save a stranded astronaut on Mars goes awry with the vehicle going out of control and blowing up.  Real life has turned out to be much more complicated for the agency's efforts to keep the International Space Station (ISS) supplied with food, spare parts, consumables and experiments. Two different U.S. launches plus a Russian resupply mission failed over the last year, leaving NASA and its suppliers to "Plan C" for resuming operations starting back up this December.

NASA's saga started about a year ago when Orbital (Now Orbital-ATK) flight Orb-3 out of Wallops Island, VA dramatically blew up a handful of seconds after launch.  Resupply plans for ISS include the use of two commercial U.S.-flagged companies, anticipating the possibility of service interruption if there was a problem with a single vendor.  The loss of two vehicles during the Space Shuttle program and development of new launch systems meant NASA executives had to factor Murphy's Law into space station operations.

Orbital-ATK (News - Alert) attributes the launch failure on a problem in one of the two Antares rocket first stage Aerojet AJ-26 engines.  The company had been in the initial planning stages to switch the Antares from the Cold War-era engines over to new Russia-built RD-181s once it ran through its supply of AJ-26s under its initial NASA supply contract.  Orb-3's failure and continued questions around the AJ-26 lead Orbital to accelerate the Antares re-engine project.   First flight for the re-engine Antares is penciled in for May 2016.

While Antares is being refit with new engines, Orbital purchased two ULA Atlas V launches flying out of Cape Canaveral, Florida to make up for the sidelining of Wallops Island operations. The first Atlas V with an Orbital-ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft is scheduled for a December 3, 2015 launch, with a second Atlas V/Cygnus flight penciled in for the spring of 2016.  Due to the heavy lifting capacity of Atlas V, Cygnus will be able to transport more cargo (mass), making a pair of Atlas V/Cygnus missions roughly equal to three or more Antares/Cygnus launches.

If the sidelining of Orbital-ATK wasn't bad enough, Russian and U.S. attempts to resupply the station in 2015 also failed.  A Russian Progress cargo freighter launched on April 25, 2015 was damaged during launch, with ground controllers unable to stabilize the craft for safe operations.  It burnt up on May 8, 2015 without having docked with ISS.   The Russians have successfully resumed Progress operations, launching two more supply missions this year.

Image via Shutterstock

SpaceX (News - Alert), the other U.S.-flagged provider of supply services to the space station, had a run of six successful cargo missions to ISS from 2012 through April 2015. Launched on June 28, 2015, SpaceX's seventh flight was lost 139 seconds after launch when a steel strut in the Falcon 9's second stage liquid oxygen tank failed, letting loose a helium bottle and rupturing the tank.   

Current plans are for SpaceX to resume launch operations of Falcon 9 in December, with the company putting  one or two commercial customers into orbit before it conducts its next ISS supply mission early next year. 

Have the two recent failures by Orbital-ATK and SpaceX affected NASA's thinking on future supply contracts?  NASA was supposed to announce winners for CRS-2, the next round of supply runs, this week, but the agency has postponed any announcement until January at the earliest.  SpaceX, Orbital-ATK, and new bidder Sierra Nevada are now in negotiations. 

Observers expected SpaceX and Orbital-ATK as incumbent vendors as likely winners for CRS-2, with possibly Boeing mounting a serious challenge offering a cargo version of its manned CTS (News - Alert)-100 capsule. Sierra Nevada would launch a cargo version of its Dream Chaser space plane, akin to a smaller version of the Space Shuttle and the Boeing  X-37B, on a ULA Atlas V rocket.   

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser would provide a smoother, less-stressful return of experiments from ISS to back Earth. It would also be a "more American" offering than Orbital-ATK's Antares/Cygnus combination, which relies on a first stage built in the Ukraine, a pair of Russian engines, and a cargo container built in Europe.   The biggest non-US parts in a Dream Chaser offering would be a single Russian engine in the first stage of ULA's Atlas V.




Edited by Kyle Piscioniere