NASA Mulls Common Upper Stage for Launch Services Catalog

by

WASHINGTON — NASA is studying ways to add an upper stage compatible with multiple agency-approved rockets to its NASA Launch Services catalog, but the government shutdown that ended Oct. 17 ensured the effort got off to a slow start.

NASA awarded study contracts to Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., Sept. 26, days before a congressional stalemate shut down the federal government for 16 days, leaving agency officials unable to meet with the companies it is paying to perform the so-called Upper Stage Service Study for the NASA Launch Services Program.

“The study is off to a slow start because the government representatives were not available,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski told SpaceNews Oct. 17. “We haven’t even had a kickoff meeting yet.”

“We haven’t had any meetings,” Jessica Pieczonka, a spokeswoman for Aerojet Rocketdyne, said Oct. 18. “They were scheduled, but they got canceled as the shutdown came.”

One thing NASA did manage to do before the shutdown took effect was turn the funding taps on. “We got the funding a couple of days before the shutdown occurred, so we have started work,” Pieczonka said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s contract is worth $299,578 while Orbital’s is worth $236,913. Orbital operates several rockets but does not build propulsion systems for any of them. Aerojet Rocketdyne, on the other hand, has no rockets of its own but builds cryogenic upper-stage engines for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, and the core-stage engine for Delta 4.

Officials with NASA’s Launch Services Program could not be reached Oct. 17 or Oct. 18 for comment about the Upper Stage Service Study. However, NASA’s study solicitation offer a glimpse of how the agency could add a common upper stage to the Launch Services Program.

For example, Aerojet and Orbital were asked to design a reference mission for NASA that shows how quickly the companies’ chosen upper stages — whatever those may be — could propel a payload beyond Earth assuming launch by a rocket approximately as powerful as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1. That launcher, which flew for the first time Sept. 29, can send about 13 tons to low Earth orbit, or about 4.9 tons to geostationary transfer orbit, using the kerosene-fueled upper stage SpaceX built for it. Orbital Sciences’ rockets, including the Antares rocket that launched the Cygnus cargo tug to the international space station in September, use solid-fueled upper stages.

NASA also asked the two companies to create a plan for delivering their chosen upper stage in time to launch a hypothetical mission in July 2018. The timetable for this mission should, NASA said, account for expenses such as one-time development costs associated with designing and building the common upper stage.

NASA further directed Aerojet and Orbital to design upper stages that use some industry-standard hardware, such as the payload interface used for both the Atlas 5 and  Delta 4 rockets that launch the vast majority of U.S. government satellites.

Meanwhile, NASA hinted in the solicitation that if it does decide to add a common upper stage to its launch services catalog, management of that service might be farmed out to industry with a contract for upper-stage integration and ground support.

“The goals of this study are to further the development, beyond concept, towards implementation of an Upper Stage Service which would be provided to [the Launch Services Program] under a potential future services contract,” according to NASA’s solicitation for study proposals.

NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, arranges rides to space for agency missions such as the flagship Curiosity rover launched to Mars in 2011 by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. Agency-approved rockets are cataloged in the NASA Launch Services 2 Contract, which at the moment includes nine rockets from four operators. Not all of these are in production.

Of those that are, only Atlas 5 — the most powerful rocket in the catalog — is certified to launch the most critical NASA payloads. Rockets from Orbital and SpaceX are also in the catalog, but may only be used for low-risk payloads until they prove themselves with multiple successful launches of NASA spacecraft.