Orbital ATK, Virginia Reach Accord on Pad Repair Bill, Insurance

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WASHINGTON — Orbital ATK, NASA and the state of Virginia agreed to split a $15 million bill for repairing a launchpad damaged when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded after lifting off on a NASA cargo mission last October. Orbital ATK also will be required to carry insurance to cover any future damage to the state-owned launch facility.

Orbital ATK, NASA and Virginia will each pay $5 million to get Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia, back in working order, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said Aug. 6 . McAuliffe made the announcement at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, alongside Dale Nash, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, and Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group.

Virginia spent $90 million to build the cryogenic-capable Pad 0A on a land leased from NASA in a corner of the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility. At the time of the Oct. 28 Antares failure, the state-owned facility was not insured, precipitating a spat between the federal government, Virginia, and Orbital ATK over who was responsible for repairs and cleanup costs.

That hatchet appears to be buried.

“We’ve agreed to share the costs equally, and Orbital will provide launch insurance for Virginia assets, the launchpad and systems,” Nash said in a phone interview after the Aug. 6 announcement. Orbital ATK will pay a “very competitive price” to use the state-owned facilities, Nash added.

Nash declined to quantify Orbital ATK’s per-launch fee, but someone familiar with the negotiations between Virginia and Pad 0A’s only customer said each launch will cost Orbital ATK $1.5 million — unchanged from the figure  the Dulles, Virginia-based company agreed to under a 2012 agreement with the state.

However, it remains unclear if Orbital ATK will have to pay $1.8 million to Virginia for moving the next launch under its NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract to Florida. The company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft is slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral in early December, Orbital ATK Chief Executive David Thompson said on an Aug. 6 earnings call.

Under the 2012 agreement, Orbital ATK gets penalized for moving any NASA cargo launches out of state.

Likewise unclear is the amount of insurance coverage Orbital ATK has extended to Virginia. Nash provided a ballpark estimate in May, when he told SpaceNews the cost of insurance on the open market would exceed the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority’s annual operating budget of $16 million.

“Our insurance coverage for upcoming missions will protect [Virginia’s] assets in the event of loss or damage from launch activities,” Orbital ATK spokeswoman Vicki Cox wrote in an Aug. 6 email. “The exact cost of the coverage is proprietary information.”

McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Nuckols did not immediately reply to a request for comment Aug. 6.

The $15 million Pad 0A repair tab McAuliffe quoted Aug. 6 is $2 million higher than the initial estimate the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority provided in April. The earlier estimate did not include environmental cleanup costs, Nash said. Higher than expected construction costs also figured into the mix, said Nash.

Meanwhile, Nash added, Pad 0A should be repaired by Sept. 30. Orbital ATK has said the next Antares launch from Virginia should happen early next year.

The first two RD-181 engines Orbital ATK purchased from Russia’s NPO Energomash to replace the AJ-26 engines Orbital has blamed for the Oct. 28 failure arrived at Wallops in July, putting the company’s next-generation Antares vehicle on track for “on-pad system and engine testing” some time “in the next four to five months,” Thompson said during the company’s latest quarterly call.

After the launch failure, Orbital ATK decided to discontinue use of AJ-26 engines, which are Soviet-vintage NK-33 engines refurbished and rebranded by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sacramento, California.

Orbital ATK’s cargo delivery contract with NASA, signed in 2008, is worth $1.9 billion. The company is banking on the upgraded Antares, and its experience flying the Cygnus space-tug the rocket launches, to win follow-on delivery business with NASA. Bidding for the follow-on work closed last November. NASA expects to make an award in September.