WASHINGTON — The cancellation of NASA’s Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS) X-ray telescope mission could cost up to 150 Orbital Sciences Corp. employees their jobs and may force the Dulles, Va.-based satellite and launch vehicle manufacturer to retire its reliable but underbooked Pegasus XL rocket.

“The jobs are at risk,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said June 13. “We’ll definitely try to roll people onto other programs, but [layoffs are] definitely one possibility.”

The 150 vulnerable jobs amount to 9 percent of Orbital’s 1,700-person Northern Virginia work force. Orbital employs 3,800 nationwide, including a large Arizona presence.

Work on the GEMS spacecraft was in its early stages at Orbital’s Dulles campus when NASA canceled the 3-year-old program late last month citing cost and schedule growth. Shutting down the program is expected to cost NASA around $13 million in contract termination fees, with about half that amount going to Orbital, the prime contractor for the GEMS spacecraft.

Orbital acknowledges GEMS had outgrown the $105 million cost cap NASA initially set when it selected the Small Explorer-class mission in 2009 for funding. But the company disputes a recent external review that concluded GEMS would cost more than $150 million and not be ready to launch until 2015 or later. Orbital says the GEMS team can get the job done for the $135 million funding level NASA approved in January and make its 2014 launch date.

After NASA rejected a June 5 appeal by the GEMS team that outlined $12 million in cost reductions and price concessions, Orbital took its case to Capitol Hill.

“The decision [to cancel GEMS] was based on an erroneous and incomplete set of cost, schedule and technical data,” Orbital officials wrote in a June 7 white paper circulated among NASA’s congressional oversight committees. “Orbital recommends restoring the program’s funding to preserve the benefits of the science mission, as well as to avoid significant economic disruption and preserve the long-term availability of the Pegasus launch vehicle.”


Whither Pegasus?

The air-launched Pegasus has logged 41 launches, including three failures and two partial successes, since Orbital introduced the rocket in 1990. Pegasus XL, the slightly larger rocket the company has been flying since 1994, can send 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

Orbital, however, has been struggling to find payloads for the Pegasus XL, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the rocket’s flight rate.

Pegasus launched five times from 2004 to 2008. In the preceding five-year period, it flew 10 times, including four flights in 2003 alone, according to an online mission history maintained by Orbital.

The successful June 13 launch of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission was Orbital’s first Pegasus launch since October 2008. With the GEMS mission marked for cancellation, Orbital has just one Pegasus mission on its manifest: a January 2013 launch of NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) mission.

Orbital does not see another solid opportunity for Pegasus until 2017 or later. About 100 people work on the program, Beneski said.

“To have a multiyear hiatus like that is not good for the launch team itself, and it does add to the cost of the rocket,” he said.

NASA paid Orbital approximately $36 million for the just-completed NuSTAR launch. Next year’s IRIS launch, which was put under contract in 2010, will cost about $40 million.

“Costs have gone up over the years,” Beneski said. “It seems like a high price to pay for a small launcher, but look at the reliability.”

That is the message Orbital officials took to Capital Hill after NASA announced June 7 it was pressing ahead with the GEMS cancellation. Orbital warned lawmakers that the cancellation threatens more than just 195 jobs at Orbital and its industry partners; it also threatens the continued availability of Pegasus.

“With the cancellation of GEMS and a lack of downstream launch service opportunities, a critical capability in the U.S. launch market for small missions would be permanently lost to the nation,” Orbital wrote in the June 7 white paper. “NASA and the U.S. space community would no longer have a proven small launcher for low-cost/high-value missions. In addition, a GEMS program cancellation could be yet another blow to the U.S. solid rocket booster industrial base, with the elimination of an entire launch vehicle product.”

ATK Aerospace of Magna, Utah, provides the solid rocket motors for Pegasus XL, and for other Orbital rockets. ATK also was an Orbital subcontractor for the GEMS spacecraft.

ATK Space Structures and Components of Goleta, Calif., was tapped to build a collapsible boom small enough to be folded into a Pegasus XL fairing but large enough once deployed to keep GEMS’ X-ray detectors at the appropriate distance from the spacecraft’s telescopes.

ATK spokesman George Torres said June 13 the GEMS cancellation puts 15 jobs in jeopardy at ATK’s Goleta facility and 30 jobs at the rocket motor plant in Magna. “It’s a hit no matter which way you look at it,” he said.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.