TURIN, Italy — The builder of the pressurized cargo modules launched aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket to carry supplies to the international space station says it would need a follow-on contract this year to provide maximum cost advantage to Orbital and its customer, NASA.

Thales Alenia Space’s 2009 contract with Dulles, Va.-based Orbital, valued at 180 million euros ($247 million), called for the delivery of nine Cygnus cargo modules by 2015.

Two of these have been launch successfully, and two more are scheduled for launch this year. Three more launches in 2015 and two in 2016 will complete the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract Orbital has with NASA, assuming that the flights carry the contracted amount of payload.

NASA in February issued a request for information for a planned CRS 2 program, but it remains unclear when the agency will be ready to enter into formal contract negotiations, presumably with Orbital and with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif. SpaceX has a separate CRS contract with NASA.

In a March 21 interview at Thales Alenia Space’s facility here, Luigi Maria Quaglino, the company’s senior vice president for exploration and science, said the firm presumes that Orbital and NASA will demand price reductions in a second order. He said there are multiple avenues to pursue to squeeze efficiencies from the current CRS production line for a second order, but that the scale of economies depends on the timing and size of the order.

“To go down on price we of course need to reduce in our costs,” Quaglino said. “To get our costs down we need to organize ourselves with our subcontractors in advance, and our negotiations with them will depend on what CRS 2 looks like.” 

To achieve the maximum reduction in cost, he said, the company needs to know this year how many modules will be ordered in the CRS 2 contract. Given that the ninth and final vehicle under the current order is now in full assembly and slated for delivery in 2015, production line elements will begin to shut down this year.

As with most industrial production lines, follow-on orders can be processed most efficiently if they arrive before the original contract work is completed to assure a continuous flow of work for the factory.

“There has been talk of a follow-on order for two to four modules, but with NASA having decided to extend the station’s life to 2024, there are eight years of operations beyond our last delivery, and it is eight years that, unlike the past years, will not have ATV deliveries,” Quaglino said. “So we would expect an order at least as large as the original CRS.”

Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, ATV, is a much larger freighter than the Russian Progress, the Japanese HTV or either of the two U.S. supply vessels. The European Space Agency has ordered just five ATVs, with the fifth scheduled for launch this summer. 

The ATV production line in Germany is being shut down, with some of the work being transferred to Europe’s production of a service module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle. Removing the ATV from the cargo-supply rotation could increase the cargo requirements for CRS 2. 

Quaglino said one promising scenario for cutting costs in a CRS 2 order — assuming it is at least as large as the original contract — is to strip out components that are needed for a permanent space-station module but unnecessary for a vehicle that will be launched and then destroyed on atmospheric re-entry within a month or two.

Because Thales Alenia Space had already been building multiple modules for the space station, the company’s Cygnus program borrowed most of this work and applied it to the CRS hardware. At the time, with all the nonrecurring engineering costs amortized by the work on the permanent station modules, the decision was justified, he said. 

But with a little advance planning and a sizable order, Quaglino said, a CRS 2 batch could do without some of the cabling and other components that were required for units that would spend years attached to the space station.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.