Northrop Grumman seeking to cut costs on small launch vehicles

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ORLANDO — Faced with growing competition from startups entering the field, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is looking to reduce costs on its existing Pegasus and Minotaur rockets.

Speaking during a panel session at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Forum here Sept. 19, a company executive said work was underway to reduce costs of its vehicles, an effort that may eventually pull in the broader capabilities offered by Northrop Grumman.

“One of the charges that I have is to streamline our operations in small space and dramatically reduce costs of our products in the marketplace for DOD, NASA and commercial customers,” said Phil Joyce, vice president of small space launch programs at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, the former Orbital ATK.

The company has focused on reliability of its launch vehicles, he argued, notably with the air-launched Pegasus, whose last launch failure was more than 20 years ago. “Over the years our designs and our concepts and our architecture has evolved with a focus on reliability,” he said. “That reliability doesn’t always come cheap. It does require a lot of labor in some cases, and we’ve toggled to extreme reliability on our products.”

However, the high costs associated with the Pegasus — NASA’s 2014 contract for the launch of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft on a Pegasus was valued at $56.3 million, including payload processing and other services — has led to limited demand for the vehicle despite a surge in interest in smallsats. The Pegasus has launched only four times in the last 10 years, all for NASA, with the next launch, of ICON, recently rescheduled for Oct. 26.

Joyce said the company remains committed to the Pegasus and ways to reduce its costs. The company has developed a maintenance and upgrade plan to continue operating its L-1011 aircraft, one of the last still in service, for the next 10 years. Joyce noted that the aircraft’s livery has already been updated to replace the Orbital ATK logo with that of Northrop Grumman.

For Pegasus itself, Joyce said the company has been working in recent years at reducing costs of the vehicle by 20 to 30 percent. One approach for doing so has been to develop a set of common set of avionics across its launch vehicle and missile defense programs.

“We developed what we call a common space launch architecture, which is a common set of avionics that we share between all the different platforms,” Joyce said. “What that’s going to enable us to do is build in larger quantities and, more importantly, integrate in larger quantities to support lowering our labor costs and lowering our hardware costs.”

Those reduced launch costs, he said, are intended to make the Pegasus more attractive to customers beyond NASA. “We’re looking forward to continuing the Pegasus product line and, as we lower our costs on Pegasus, making it more available to a broader customer base,” he said.

Northrop is also working to lower costs on its Minotaur line of ground-launched rockets, including the Minotaur 1 and 4 used for U.S. government customers and the commercially available Minotaur-C. Joyce said those programs also share avionics and other components in efforts to reduce costs.

That cost-cutting work doesn’t, as of yet, take advantage of the resources of the larger Northrop Grumman now available to the former Orbital ATK, but Joyce said they’re starting to study at those possibilities. “That’s something that we’re looking at very hard right now,” he said.

That cost-cutting takes on new urgency as more ventures enter the small launch market, seeking to tap into the demand from primarily commercial small satellites seeking the benefits of dedicated launches but at lower prices than existing vehicles. Several of those companies were on the same panel as Northrop’s Joyce.

During that panel, the moderator asked the companies how many small launch vehicles the market can bear. Answers ranged from three to “less than 10.” There were five companies represented on the panel.