Orbital Asked Judge on Day of Antares Accident To Force Turnover of Launch Hardware

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WASHINGTON — Shortly before its Antares rocket exploded Oct. 28, Orbital Sciences Corp. asked a federal judge to force a contractor to turn over hardware the Dulles, Virginia, company needs before it can launch a new version of its Cygnus cargo capsule that was supposed to debut in April.

The timing of that mission is now in doubt following the failure of the company’s Antares rocket, which exploded seconds after liftoff from its Wallops Island, Virginia launch pad, destroying the Cygnus freighter it was attempting to launch to the international space station. Antares is grounded at least until Orbital Sciences, NASA and Antares main-stage propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne complete a failure investigation.

The motion for a preliminary injunction Orbital filed Oct. 28 is the latest turn in a lawsuit centered around the Transporter Erector Launcher, the slow-moving mobile launch tower used to haul Antares out of its hangar and raise the rocket vertical at the pad. NASA’s day-after assessment of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A found that the Transporter Erector Launcher was among the ground hardware damaged when Antares erupted into a ball of flame and debris.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Orbital has accused Integrated Systems and Machinery and its managing director, Kevin Huber, of holding hostage crucial parts needed to upgrade the transporter — assuming it can be salvaged — to handle the heavier Cygnus space capsule Orbital has long planned to start flying to deliver the 20 tons of cargo it has to get to the station by the end of 2017 under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract it signed with NASA in 2008.

Huber is also being sued in federal court by Advanced Fluid Systems of York, Pennsylvania, his old employer. The company, which contracted with the state of Virginia to build hydraulic systems for the Transporter Erector Launcher in 2009, says Huber stole trade secrets to win business building transporter upgrades for Orbital. Orbital said in its lawsuit that it did not know of Huber’s alleged actions when it awarded Integrated Systems and Machinery a roughly $2 million contract in 2012 to build gimbals, cylinders and other hardware.