WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman intends to conduct West Coast launches of its OmegA rocket from the same Vandenberg Air Force Base launch complex currently leased to United Launch Alliance for Delta 4 Heavy launches, a senior executive said Oct. 23.
“On the West Coast, we will launch from SLC-6,” Kent Rominger, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and capture lead for the OmegA launch system, said in a presentation at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress.
Space Launch Complex-6, originally built in the 1960s to launch the Air Force’s never-flown Manned Orbital Laboratory, was repurposed in the 1980s as a dedicated launch and landing site for military space shuttle missions. After the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Air Force mothballed the California site without ever conducting a West Coast shuttle launch. It reactivated the site in the 1990s for a handful of Lockheed Martin Athena launches and eventually turned it over to the Delta 4 program.
Rominger said it will be possible for Northrop Grumman to start preparing SLC-6 for OmegA launches pad without disrupting ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy operations, which are expected to wrap up in 2024 with Delta 4’s final flight.
“Our plan is to use it on a non-interference basis as we modify the pad to accommodate OmegA,” said Rominger. The rocket’s first and second stages use solid fuel “so we don’t have nearly the demand for the cryogenics that you would on a liquid system,” he said. The upper stage uses a liquid engine but Rominger said that will only require a small amount of cryogenic propellants.
“Modifications at SLC-6 are not as difficult as one might imagine,” Rominger said.
OmegA is one of the rockets being offered to the Air Force for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. One of the requirements for all bidders is to be able to launch from both East Coast and West Coast ranges.
Northrop Grumman is building its East Coast pad and vertical assembly facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, at the same site where NASA will launch its Space Launch System rocket. Rominger said both vehicles will be able to operate on the same site without causing disruption. “We roll out, launch and come back,” he said. “There is no huge conflict to share it with SLS.”
As recently as July, Northrop Grumman had not selected one of Vandenberg’s space launch complexes for OmegA, but an Air Force official said this summer that both Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin had expressed interest in SLC-6. Of the four launch providers competing for the Air Force procurement contract, only ULA and SpaceX have pads at Vandenberg. Blue Origin has said it is considering options and has not yet announced its plans to launch from the West Coast.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center over the past several months allowed both Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to tour SLC-6. It takes years to secure permits to build new launch pads at Vandenberg so using existing ones might the only option for new entrants. Industry sources told SpaceNews that ULA raised concerns about sharing the site and wanted to make sure that sensitive equipment used to assemble and launch classified satellites was not shown to competitors.
ULA CEO Tory Bruno said any decisions on who uses the pad are made jointly by the company and the Air Force. During a meeting with reporters Oct. 23, Bruno did not mention that Northrop Grumman would be allowed to use SLC-6 but said ULA, at the government’s request, has allowed other companies to inspect the facilities. ULA said it will continue to use the pad as long as the Delta 4 Heavy is in operation, which will be at least until 2024.
OmegA to fly in 2021
Rominger said Northrop Grumman believes OmegA has a strong chance to win one of two Phase 2 contracts the Air Force plans to award next year. He said OmegA’s strengths are its simple design and reliability.
The rocket’s intermediate version is expected to fly in 2021 and the heavy variant in 2024. He said over the past 20 years, solid rocket motors used in space vehicles have been “99 percent reliable,” but he acknowledged that no matter how good a rocket might look on paper it has to show it can perform in flight. OmegA’s booster and second stage are solid fueled and the third stage uses two RL-10 liquid engines made by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Rominger said Northrop Grumman already is producing flight hardware and is racing to complete development tests. “Early 2021 is not that far away,” he said.
So far Northrop Grumman has only test fired the first stage of OmegA. In a May 30 static fire test in Utah, the booster was fired for 120 seconds and near the end the engine nozzle suffered an anomaly. In a statement in June, the company said it studied the data and concluded the nozzle anomaly did not affect motor performance and the issue appeared to be limited to the rear most section of the nozzle. Northrop Grumman said it would need to analyze the data further to determine whether manufacturing, design or conditions unique to ground tests contributed to the exit cone issue.
The ground test of the second state was expected to happen in August 2019 but Rominger said it has been pushed into early 2020, and did not provide a more specific timeline.
A spokeswoman said a in a statement to SpaceNews that Northrop Grumman “postponed the OmegA second stage static fire test to early next year to provide time to incorporate lessons learned from the first stage test.”