Orbital's private launch may show whether NASA made right call

Mar 31, 2013 by Mark K. Matthews

On the face of it, the planned mid-April launch of a new commercial rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia won't be one for the record books.

A number of barriers for commercial companies already have been broken - for instance, has flown to the - and the maiden flight of Antares, a two-stage rocket built by Orbital Sciences of Virginia, is expected to do little more than prove it can put a dummy payload into orbit.

But the outcome of the test flight, and the rocket's performance going forward, could act as an important indicator of the strength of the emerging space economy - and whether NASA made the right call in relying on commercial companies to do supply runs to the space station.

The Wallops launch also will be closely watched by Florida officials, as success there would bring more proof that the number of rivals to Cape Canaveral in the launch business is growing.

As planned, Antares is expected to launch from Wallops from April 17-19 and carry an 8,400-pound weight that mimics the Cygnus spacecraft that Orbital is building to ferry cargo to the station, possibly as soon as this summer. The spacecraft will be ready by summer, the company says.

NASA also is flying three small satellites - each the size of a coffee mug and costing less than $7,000 apiece - to test whether engineers can convert components commonly found in "smartphones" into a working satellite.

Each will orbit for about two weeks - sending back pictures of Earth and about its battery life and temperature - in what NASA officials hope will teach them how to build cheap satellites that could monitor or radiation.

"The hope is to demonstrate that small, inexpensive satellites are becoming a reality," said NASA spokesman David Steitz.

In a way, the satellites are a fitting metaphor for the Antares mission itself, as NASA's use of new "space taxis" to carry supplies - and possibly astronauts - to the station was driven by a desire to lower the costs.

In 2008, Orbital Sciences made a $170 million deal with NASA to build a rocket and capsule for station resupply. Though the contract later jumped to $288 million, it's still far below the billions NASA has spent developing and operating its own space vehicles, even with the $1.9 billion that Orbital is slated to get for eight supply missions during the next several years.

But using the private sector to cut costs hasn't stopped a problem endemic to spaceflight: delays.

As late as May 2011, top Orbital officials were predicting a first test flight that year. SpaceX, another space-taxi company with a NASA contract, also was at least two years late in launching its historic 2012 mission to the station - the first time a commercial-rocket company had berthed with the orbiting observatory.

Still, Orbital's delays underscored the feeling it was playing second fiddle to the California-based company, though SpaceX signed its NASA deal in 2006 and had a two-year head start.

David Thompson, head of Orbital, acknowledged the setbacks in a Feb. 14 call with investors.

"On the negative side, the company experienced frustrating delays in completing the Antares launch (pad) and in conducting main-rocket-engine testing, which combined to push back the first flights of our new launcher into 2013," he said.

The problems with the Wallops pad, which cost an estimated $150 million in federal and state funds, dealt largely with its "plumbing" - ensuring its valves and gauges worked properly to get the rocket fueled and ready to go.

The engine problems were more dramatic - a side effect of using decades-old equipment left over from the Soviet Union's efforts to build a moon rocket in the 1960s.

Though the engines since have been upgraded in the U.S., one caught fire because of a ruptured manifold during a 2011 test. Subsequent testing revealed cracks and corrosion on other manifolds, forcing repairs and retesting.

NASA needs the Orbital flights, along with 12 planned from SpaceX, to keep the station supplied in the aftermath of the space shuttle's 2011 retirement.

And though NASA likely could find another way to meet its supply needs - SpaceX is one possibility, which could mean more launches from Florida - the success of Antares is critical for Orbital, said one space analyst.

In the past four years, a different Orbital rocket failed on two separate NASA missions. Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, said Orbital needs a success to stake a bigger claim on the space- market.

"If they have problems with (these Antares test flights) ... it starts to raise the question on whether they can make this whole thing work," Foust said, adding that it's a test of whether a midsized company such as Orbital can survive in an evolving space economy that features both upstart tourism ventures and heavyweight defense companies such as Lockheed Martin.

"The challenge for them (Orbital) is that now there is a new generation of companies that are getting a lot of attention . . . and they are caught between them and the aerospace giants," Foust said. "They have to find their place in this evolving market."

Explore further: European space plane set for February launch

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philw1776
not rated yet Apr 01, 2013
kudos to the Obama administration and NASA for following through on the commercial launcher angle. And Boos to Congress for wasting valuable NASA funds on pork barrel SLS congressional district jobs program to facilitate re-election prospects which is crippling planetary exploration and science missions. No $ for Kepler follow on missions to characterize extrasolar planets.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2013
Gosh, they make Orbital sound like a completely new entry into the space business, struggling to survive. The following is from the wiki page on Orbital

Orbital Sciences since inception has built 569 launch vehicles with 82 more to be delivered by 2015. 174 satellites have been built by the company since 1982 with 24 more to be delivered by 2015. Orbital has a 40% share of the interceptor market, 55% share of the small communications satellite market, and a 60% share of the small launch vehicles market


It's ironic to note that a big part of their business is making rockets that are meant to be shot down for target practice. lol
GSwift7
5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2013
NASA funds on pork barrel SLS congressional district jobs program to facilitate re-election prospects which is crippling planetary exploration and science missions. No $ for Kepler follow on missions to characterize extrasolar planets


I agree about SLS.

As for the Kepler folow-up, that's a mixed bag. We do have the JWST on the way, which has the angular resolution and sharpness to be extremely well suited for follow-up on previously identified exo-planet candidates. You also have to consider that Kepler was walking on totally new ground, so the exact needs that a follow-up mission might be equipped to handle weren't really known until the Kepler results started to come in. If they had started designing something a couple years ago, they would likely be re-thinking and re-designing it based on what Kepler has found.

Personally, I think a space-based interferometer would be a nice target for future astronomy missions. Seems like a logical next step in observatory progress
ameriman
5 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2013
Keep it straight..
Caltech's JPL is a academic facility which owns all planetary missions, is dedicated to space science, exploration, technology..
SpaceX is a private enterprise dedicated to efficiency, innovation, spirit, opening space to Americans..
Nasa is a bloated Federal agency dedicated to shameless earmarked pork like SLS/Orion, greed, waste, bureaucracy..

We can and should downsize/eliminate big govt, bloated, pork driven Nasa and instead directly fund (via NSF?) Caltech's JPL for probes, and SpaceX for boosters and manned spaceflight..
Hand SpaceX even a few $billions, and America could be on Mars in a few years...

Instead, pork driven Nasa wastes $60 billion more on another unneeded, unsustainable, unaffordable earmarked pork Govt 'super-rocket' whose cost destroys the very projects it is supposed to enable.
ameriman
3 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2013
Why are we wasting $billions funding Orbital Science to use dead-end obsolete/surplus Russian rocket engines to do what SpaceX can already do with it's clean sheet American equipment?
We already have competition to SpaceX... international competition (Russia, Japen, etc)...

After unaffordable, unsustainable, multi $billion/flight boondoggles like Saturn V, Shuttle, Constellation, Nasa has more than proven that it is incompetent/incapable of 'cheap, safe, reliable access to space'... The 41.6 billion/flight Nasa shuttle was the most bankruptingly unaffordable, dangerous, unreliable space vehicle in history... and while Nasa blew $15 billion on it's miserably failed/canceled Constellation boondoggle, SpaceX produced vastly superior/efficient boosters/capsules for only $300 million...

The US space program is too important to be further entrusted to our bloated, greedy, pork driven Federal Govt and Fed Agency Nasa... let private industry innovation, efficiency, spirit take the lead.
ameriman
5 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2013
Nasa has a nearly $17 billion/year budget, with only a tiny portion going to productive work.. Caltech's JPL and SpaceX..

We should be leveraging SpaceX boosters and deep space capable capsules to add components for on-orbit module connection/fueling, sending Americans to mars in the next few years for a small part of what the Nasa bloated center/hq bureaucracy wastes now..

Instead, we are wasting earmarked pork on DC area Govt profiteer Orbital Science's Russian engines, and pure shameless earmarked pork to shuttle legacy profiteers for unneeded, unsustainable, unaffordable SLS/Orion.....

You can be for a rational, efficient, effective US space program, or you can be for bloated, pork driven Nasa... but not both.
philw1776
not rated yet Apr 04, 2013

As for the Kepler folow-up, that's a mixed bag. We do have the JWST on the way, which has the angular resolution and sharpness to be extremely well suited for follow-up on previously identified exo-planet candidates. You also have to consider that Kepler was walking on totally new ground, so the exact needs that a follow-up mission might be equipped to handle weren't really known until the Kepler results started to come in. If they had started designing something a couple years ago, they would likely be re-thinking and re-designing it based on what Kepler has found.

Personally, I think a space-based interferometer would be a nice target for future astronomy missions. Seems like a logical next step in observatory progress


I didn't mean another Kepler like mission but something like the unfunded TPF but updated. Instead the science foundations,knowing Kepler's success, deliberately chose to recommend NO follow on program dedicated to extrasolar planetary science.

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