WASHINGTON — A ndrews Space, a small company founded nearly a decade ago by Kistler alumni, has signed on to help Rocketplane Kistler finance, design and build the K-1 reusable rocket and conduct a series of international space station re-supply demonstration flights for NASA.
Seattle-based Andrews Space replaces Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. as Rocketplane Kistler’s strategic partner for the K-1. Andrews’ role will be systems engineering, integration, and safety and mission assurance work.
Orbital Sciences, which had planned to serve as prime contractor for the K-1 and invest $10 million to help finance resumption of the rocket’s development, said Sept. 25 that it had severed its partnership with Rocketplane Kistler over a disagreement about the Oklahoma City-based company’s business plan.
Andrews President Jason Andrews said Sept. 28 that his company is taking over Orbital’s role on the K-1, including making a $10 million investment.
Rocketplane Kistler was picked by NASA in mid-August to receive $207 million under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to help finance development of the K-1 and conduct a series of international space station re-supply flight demonstrations by the end of the decade. A separate $278 million COTS award went to Rocketplane Kistler’s rival, Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.
Andrews Space, a 60-person engineering firm with revenues expected to hit $10 million this year, is one of the four other COTS finalists that Rocketplane Kistler and Space Exploration Technologies beat out for the contract awards.
Andrews declined to provide details about his company’s promised initial investment in Rocketplane Kistler, but noted that Andrews Space had “a fairly robust financing plan put in place” in anticipation of a COTS win .
Andrews is no stranger to the K-1. He worked for Kistler Aerospace as an engineer from 1995 to 1998. Several other Andrews Space executives also worked for Kistler Aerospace prior to the company filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2003. Kistler emerged from bankruptcy in 2005 and was bought by Rocketplane’s majority owner George French in February.
Andrews said of the partnership: “It’s a real good fit in terms of our corporate knowledge and experience with the K-1 business case and the design.”
David Little, a former Kistler engineer and now an Andrews Space senior vice president, will serve as deputy program manager for the K-1. Rocketplane Kistler President Randy Brinkley, whose career includes stints as president of Boeing Satellite Systems and NASA’s international space station program manager, will serve as K-1 program manager.
Brinkley was not available for an interview Sept. 28. He said in a brief e-mail that he was en route from Houston to Los Angeles.
In a Sept. 25 interview, Brinkley said he was pleased with Rocketplane Kistler’s new partner, which he declined to name at the time. “We’re very comfortable with the new partner and think it’s a good fit,” he said.
Andrews Space’s customers include NASA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and aerospace prime contractors.
Brinkley told Space News that the Rocketplane Kistler’s partnership with Orbital Sciences fell apart last week after Orbital “conditioned their investment” on making design changes to the K-1 that Rocketplane Kistler found unacceptable.
Brinkley declined to detail what changes Orbital wanted to make to the K-1, but said they “involved a different configuration and different hardware, including non-U.S. hardware.”
“It was a significant change to our K-1 baseline from what we agreed to with NASA in our Space Act Agreement,” Brinkley said. “After consultation with NASA regarding the proposed changes and impact to our baseline, we decided to terminate the strategic relationship.”
Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said Sept. 25 that the Dulles, Va.-based company was parting ways with Rocketplane Kistler over a disagreement about the company’s business plans.
“We haven’t been able to agree on all the elements of the business plan so we will not be part of the program going forward,” Beneski said. “And of course as a result we will not be investing the $10 million.”
Andrews said his company has no intention of insisting on K-1 design changes.
“We are focused on working with the current configuration,” Andrews said. “We are part of the team that came up with the existing design. We are very comfortable with it and we are focused on making it successful going forward.”
Brinkley said changing strategic partners a month into the project would not prevent Rocketplane Kistler from meeting its obligations under the COTS Space Act Agreement it signed with NASA. That agreement makes continued NASA funding of the K-1 contingent upon Rocketplane Kistler’s ability to meet regular programmatic, technical and financial milestones.
Rocketplane Kistler estimates that completing the K-1 and conducting its COTS demonstration flights will cost roughly $600 million. The company has pledged to NASA that it would match its investment roughly two-to-one with outside capital.
Brinkley said in an e-mail Sept. 29 that Rocketplane Kistler had the “vast majority” of its initial financing in place and had “an agreed to plan with NASA to backfill and finalize the remaining first round financing in the next few weeks.”
Brinkley said Rocketplane Kistler executives were meeting with NASA officials Sept. 28 “to walk through where we are both programmatically as well as where we are on the financial end.”
NASA officials had little to say about Rocketplane Kistler changing financial partners.
“The companies involved in this situation are just doing business,” NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said Sept. 29. “NASA’s interest is that [Rocketplane Kistler] meet their milestones as agreed upon in the Space Act Agreement and we are working with them to reach that goal.”
Rocketplane Kistler expects to conduct its first K-1 flight in 2008 and demonstrate space station cargo delivery as early as 2009.
While successfully completing a delivery demo on that timetable would bode well for Rocketplane Kistler, it would still not guarantee that the company would win any launch services contracts from NASA, which plans to hold an open competition for actual space station-resupply contracts around 2010.