The job of procuring expendable launch vehicle services for NASA’s scientific missions has gotten more complicated since United Launch Alliance (ULA) discontinued production of the medium-lift Delta 2 rocket, which for years has served as a highly reliable and affordable workhorse.

The production shutdown, driven by a U.S. Air Force decision to discontinue using the vehicle, left NASA heavily dependent on ULA’s larger but far more expensive Atlas 5 rocket for launching its medium-size to large satellites. 

Meanwhile, back-to-back failures of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus XL rocket curtailed NASA’s options for smaller payloads.

But things are opening back up for Jim Norman, who took overall responsibility for procuring NASA’s expendable rockets in 2011. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital have been successful to date with their respective Falcon 9 v1.1 and Antares rockets, both of which were developed in part with NASA funding under a program designed to nurture commercial logistics services to the international space station. 

SpaceX is well on its way to qualifying the Falcon 9 v1.1 to carry NASA’s high-value science missions and Orbital is not far behind with Antares. These rockets could fill the gap left by the Delta 2 program, which is down to its last five vehicles. 

Norman came to NASA from the National Reconnaissance Office, where he also was responsible for launch services. Though his office is housed within NASA’s Human Space Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Norman is focused solely on launches for robotic missions.  

He spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

NASA officials have complained in recent years about soaring launch costs. Can you quantify the increase?

The last four missions we awarded under the NASA Launch Services (NLS) Contract in 2010 were for roughly $600 million, or about $150 million each, on average. Then we saw about a $30 million bump to $180 million a launch when we awarded the next mission, which was the first awarded under the NASA Launch Services 2 contract.

What effect has the loss of the Delta 2 had on planning for NASA science missions?

We lost Delta 2 as we were transitioning from our original NLS 1 contract in the summer of 2010. It was not being offered initially by ULA on the NLS 2 contract. I suspect it was a business decision, but I can’t really say. What it’s caused, I think, is uncertainty in planning. We’re frankly still in a period of transition of Delta 2 and its medium-class replacements, but with each flight of Orbital’s Antares and SpaceX’s Falcon 9, that uncertainty is being reduced. Mission planners need to be able to think upfront what size a payload to pursue, and so having a medium-class option is a good thing. 

How much competition in any given payload class is enough?

I think it’s good to have to have two. I think the competitive forces at play when there are at least two vehicles in a class are beneficial.  

ULA has one remaining Delta 2 that is not spoken for. Do you think that rocket will be booked for a flight in 2014? 

There are assemblies for one more Delta 2, and it’s up to ULA to decide whether to offer it or not. We bought four of the five Delta 2s that were left through competitions. We’ve got NASA Earth Science’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, Soil Moisture Active Passive and IceSat 2 launching on Delta 2, and the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

How close are Falcon 9 and Antares to being cleared to carry high-value NASA payloads?

Falcon 9 has begun certification. It is on the path to achieve what we call Category 2 certification, where Category 3 is the highest level of certification. What level of certification a mission needs is determined as a part of a discussion between the Launch Services Program’s flight planning board and the owners of a particular payload. The most risk-sensitive payloads, something like Mars Science Laboratory with its nuclear power source, needs a Category 3 launch vehicle.

Where is Antares in the process?

Orbital has not yet started the Antares certification process, and they don’t necessarily have to. The way that certification is set up with NASA is that you need to complete certification prior to flight, but you don’t have to complete certification prior to us awarding you a contract. You can propose a certification as part of a proposal to launch a mission, but you do have to have had a successful first flight before you can compete.  

When will Antares be eligible? 

Their first two Antares flights, which were of the 120-model Antares launch vehicle, enabled Orbital to bid for a mission with that vehicle. The upgraded 130 model, which has a different upper stage, has not yet had a first flight, and it needs that before it can bid. A key part of our policy deals with core propulsive elements of a rocket. [Editor’s note: Orbital successfully launched Antares for the third time Jan. 9, but that vehicle also was the 120 model.] 

Speaking of different core propulsive modules, NASA Launch Services booked the U.S.-French Jason-3 mission on a Falcon 9 1.0, which SpaceX has now discontinued in favor of upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1. Are they allowed to make that switch?

Yes. A term on our NLS 2 contract is that any of our providers can offer to substitute a vehicle that has already had a successful flight for any vehicle that was already awarded a launch service contract, as long as there is no additional cost to the government. It is up to the Launch Services Program to review that offer and determine if it is in the best interest of NASA to accept that offer. That’s what happened in this case. That review happened shortly after the successful first flight of Falcon 9 v1.1 on Sept. 29. There’s no change in NASA’s firm, fixed price launch service contract with SpaceX. 

Just so you know, this isn’t the first time we’ve done this. We switched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, which launched in 2005, to an Atlas 5 from an Atlas 3B. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened, I think, with each of our launch service providers.

Can Orbital’s Taurus XL redeem itself after back-to-back failures that destroyed Earth science satellites? 

Taurus XL is still on the NLS 2 contract, so it is available to be offered. It’s up to Orbital whether to offer it. They still need to complete a return to flight and Orbital is aware of that. What I expect to have happen, if Orbital wants to offer Taurus XL to NASA, is for them to propose a return-to-flight plan, either unsolicited or in response to one of our requests for proposals. The Launch Services Program and some independent technical authorities, the Office of the Chief Engineer, and the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, would then comment on that plan. It would probably be to Orbital’s benefit to compose a return to flight prior to a competition so their plan could be understood.  

Has Orbital done any of those things?

No. But I have to give them credit. They’ve been working very well with the Launch Services Program. The mishap investigation board for the Glory failure ended in January 2013, and the company continued their own investigation into that frangible fairing joint that failed. I think they’ve made some great progress and I hope some of that can be made public in the near term. But at this point, they’re still going through testing and analysis. 

What are the active NASA launch services procurements?

We have two ongoing competitions, so we’re under blackout; I can’t talk a lot about details. One is for a NASA-European Space Agency heliophysics mission called Solar Orbiter, and the other is an Earth Science mission called Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System. I’m anticipating those to be awarded in the spring time frame.

Follow Dan on Twitter: Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...