Lockheed Martin, ATK Bringing Back Athena Rocket Line

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WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) are focusing on the U.S. government market for low-cost, quick reaction missions with their plan to reintroduce the dormant Athena family of small launchers, according to a Lockheed Martin official.

“The business marketplace is changing as we speak,” said Al Simpson, Athena program manager at Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems. The U.S. Department of Defense is increasingly interested in satellites that can be launched from multiple sites to augment existing space capabilities, while NASA will be doing more exploration precursor missions and redoubling its Earth observation efforts, he said.

Both trends bode well for the reintroduction of the Athena solid-fueled rockets, original versions of which have launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.; Kodiak Island, Alaska; and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., he said. In a March 25 press release announcing plans to make the upgraded rockets available for launches starting in 2012, Lockheed Martin and ATK Space Systems of Magna, Utah, said the vehicles also could launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Lockheed Martin developed the original Athena 1 and Athena 2 in the 1990s to launch small payloads for government and commercial customers. However, the market did not materialize as expected and the company stopped offering the vehicles in the early part of the next decade.

The Athena rockets flew seven times, with two failures. Among the successes was the December 1998 launch of NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission aboard the three-stage Athena 2.

Simpson said new vehicles, dubbed Athena 1c and Athena 2c, will be offered at a more attractive price than their predecessors because of the manufacturing and operational efficiencies gained from the Lockheed Martin-ATK teaming arrangement. The original Athena vehicles were built according to a more traditional prime contractor-supplier arrangement. With the Athena 1c and Athena 2c, the companies will leverage their size and existing production lines across all phases of vehicle production and operations, he said.

Simpson said the business case for the Athena 1c and Athena 2c rockets closes at a combined launch rate of one or two per year.

The two-stage Athena 1c and three-stage Athena 2c rockets will be capable of lofting payloads weighing 740 kilograms and 1,712 kilograms, respectively, to 185-kilometer orbits with an inclination — the angle at which an orbiting craft crosses the equator — of 28.5 degrees, Simpson said. That represents a marginal performance improvement over the original Athena vehicles, he said.

ATK and Lockheed Martin are targeting the market now served primarily by the ICBM-based Minotaur family of rockets built for the U.S. government by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The Athena 1c roughly corresponds in capability to the Minotaur 1, which utilizes a Minuteman missile motor as its first stage; Athena 2c is comparable to the Minotaur 4 and Minotaur 5 vehicles, which use Peacekeeper missile motors.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., also competes for missions at the lower end of that payload-size range with its Falcon 1e rocket.

Simpson noted that the supply of Peacekeeper motors is limited, and that arms control treaty provisions give Russia the right to inspect a launch vehicle and payload when Peacekeeper hardware is used. He said this can be an issue for launches of sensitive military satellites, although the U.S. Air Force currently plans to launch its high-tech Space Based Space Surveillance satellite aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket this summer.

The Athena 1c and Athena 2c will feature the same Castor 120 solid-rocket motors as their predecessors, with the newly developed Castor 30 motor serving as the upper stage. The Castor 120 is in production for Orbital’s Taurus XL launch vehicle, an Athena competitor.

ATK spokesman George Torres said his company has traditionally has served multiple launch customers and has no issues in terms of manufacturing capacity. “With the growth of this market, we also believe this market could support multiple solutions,” he added.

The original Athena vehicles used the Orbus 21D motor built by the former Chemical Systems Division of United Technologies Corp. That technology was licensed to Aerojet when the Chemical Systems Division was disbanded several years ago, and the motor is now out of production, Simpson said.

The Castor 30, which accounts for the marginal performance improvement of the new Athena rockets, was developed for Orbital’s planned medium-lift Taurus 2 rocket. The motor has been tested on the ground, the companies said in their press release.

ATK will be responsible for providing the motors for the upgraded Athena vehicles, along with other structures, integration and support. Lockheed Martin will be responsible for mission management, payload integration and launch operations of the Athena vehicles, the press release said.