SAN FRANCISCO — After 25 years of designing, developing and testing propulsion systems, Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) is ready to sell rocket engines. 

In October, the company conducted the second successful test of its Vortex liquid rocket engine. The engine was integrated in a P-15 Prospector rocket designed and built by Garvey Spacecraft Corp. of Long Beach, Calif., and California State University, Long Beach. Now, ORBITEC and its partners, Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems, Moog Space and Defense Group of East Aurora, N.Y., Boeing Defense, Space and Security of St. Louis, Denver-based Barber-Nichols Inc. and Concepts NREC of White River Junction, Vt., are prepared to offer variants of that patented propulsion system. Small- to medium-thrust versions could power spacecraft reaction control systems while more powerful models could serve as the upper stage for heavy-lift rockets.

ORBITEC officials believe those engines, which are designed to reduce the price and mass of liquid rockets while increasing their performance, can help to expand space access just as improvements in jet engine technology helped pave the way for widespread air travel. “I see space travel expanding much like air travel did in the mid-1900s,” said Tom Crabb, ORBITEC president. “I would love to see success not only in the suborbital market, but commercial crew transportation, Bigelow space habitats and NASA missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

On March 1, NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland awarded ORBITEC a $745,000 contract to perform systems and cost analysis on a variant of its Vortex design, the VR-3A Vision liquid engine, designed to provide more than 30,000 pounds of thrust to meet future NASA and U.S. Air Force requirements. An engine of that size could replace the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10 upper stage on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets and offer in-space propulsion for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System and rockets of similar sizes.  

Mission: To develop, demonstrate, and deploy innovative technologies and advanced products that enhance the quality of human life and support mankind’s exploration of the universe

Top Official: Eric Rice, chief executive

Established: 1988

Location: Madison, Wis.

Personnel: 80 full-time, part-time and associates

“We are full-go as a supplier of engines,” Crabb said. “We may be small but we went through all the steps to perfect conventional and Vortex style engines.”

Those steps included extensive rocket engine testing in ORBITEC’s large engine facility on the former site of the U.S. Army Badger Ammunition Plant near Baraboo, Wis. That facility includes two cells for testing hybrid and liquid rocket engines with up to 50,000 pounds of thrust. ORBITEC can conduct testing of smaller engines with up to 100 pounds of thrust in the basement laboratories of the company’s Madison, Wis., headquarters, said Paul Zamprelli, ORBITEC business director.

In addition to developing propulsion systems for government and commercial customers, ORBITEC is the prime contractor for environmental control, life support and thermal control systems for Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, a competitor vying for NASA contracts to ferry astronauts between Earth and the international space station. ORBITEC also is working with Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., to develop environmental control and life support systems, subsystems and components for Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft and Bigelow’s inflatable space habitat.

Under a NASA contract awarded in early 2012, ORBITEC is developing a miniature vegetable garden for the international space station. The Vegetable Production System, which is scheduled to launch in October on Space Exploration Technologies’ third space station cargo mission, includes a self-contained garden approximately the size of a microwave oven with seeds and soil to provide astronauts with fresh salad crops.

In a related effort, ORBITEC is providing payload integration and operational support services for the Advanced Plant Habitat, a NASA Kennedy Space Center initiative to develop a large, environmentally controlled chamber scheduled for use on the international space station beginning in 2016. 

The Vegetable Production System demonstrates how plants in space can provide nutrition, while supporting astronaut health and mental wellbeing. For long-term exploration missions, space vehicle providers will need to develop extremely efficient life support systems. Those systems may rely on plants to recycle carbon dioxide and water, Crabb said.

ORBITEC was founded in 1988 by Eric Rice, Ron Teeter and Crabb. The three men, who previously worked together at the Astronautics Corp. of America and Battelle Columbus Laboratories, were eager to establish an independent aerospace business focused on propulsion, life support and automation. Nearly 25 years later, the firm remains involved in many of the same types of work. Instead of simply supporting commercial and government customers striving to mature early stage technology, however, ORBITEC increasingly develops its own products. 

Some are commercial spin-offs of ORBITEC’s aerospace projects. For example, ORBITEC’s efforts to develop extremely efficient lighting for orbiting plant habitats led company officials to develop specialized lighting equipment for greenhouses and aquariums. Similarly, Army robotics work led ORBITEC to develop a sensor boot called PedAlert that monitors the amount of weight being placed on a person’s foot. Physical therapists use PedAlert to help patients rehabilitate feet, knees and hips.

Because ORBITEC is a small company, it often moves into new markets by forming partnerships and teaming agreements with companies that possess the expertise and distribution chains to sell those products. While ORBITEC is eager to expand its line of commercial products, that work will require the company to develop new partnerships and seek additional capital. “We have got more technologies and products than available capital,” Crabb said. 

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...