Orbital Sciences Corp. , the Dulles, Va.-based satellite-and-rocket builder, has agreed to manage development of the K-1 reusable launcher if Rocketplane Kistler wins a critical NASA contract due to be awarded by mid-August.

Rocketplane Kistler is one of six finalists vying for all or part of the $500 million NASA intends to spend over the next five years on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. COTS is a flight-demonstration effort designed to foster the development of new services that could potentially take over some of the space shuttle’s space station duties by the time it retires in 2010. NASA is expected to announce Aug. 18 that two of the six teams have been selected to receive COTS awards.

Under an agreement announced July 24, Orbital Sciences would serve as prime contractor for the K-1 and invest around $10 million in the project if Rocketplane Kistler gets a COTS contract. Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski said the company submitted its own COTS proposal in March but was not one of the six finalists NASA selected in May. Beneski said Orbital would manage the K-1 subcontractor team and lead the engineering, manufacturing and test work that needs be done.

Randy Brinkley, president of Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler, said most of the K-1 design work would take place at Orbital facilities in Dulles, while test, integration and final assembly of the vehicle would be subcontracted out to Lockheed Martin Space Systems‘ New Orleans-based Michoud Operations.

The K-1 has been in development off and on since the early 1990s, but work on the rocket all but stopped after a NASA flight demonstration contract awarded in 2004 was rescinded following a successful protest by Kistler-rival Space Exploration Technologies, an El Segundo, Calif.-based rocket start-up considered a favorite to win one of the two COTS awards. The other four COTS finalists are Seattle-based Andrews Space; Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev; Houston-based SpaceHab; and Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp.

Brinkley said restarting the K-1 program would initially require a team of 30 people, about half of which would be Rocketplane Kistler employees, including some K-1 veterans who would be hired back in event of a COTS win. Orbital employees would make up the rest of the restart team, which Brinkley said would grow to about 80 people by January.

Brinkley said it is expected to cost “a little less than” $500 million to finish the K-1 and demonstrate its ability to serve as an international space station re supply vehicle. Rocketplane Kistler intends to take advantage of the space station’s robotic arm to grab the K-1’s cargo container and berth it to the U.S. side of the station for unloading.

While the rocket’s initial flights would take place out of Woomera, Australia, Brinkley said Rocketplane Kistler intends to establish a second launch and recovery site in the United States, most likely in Nevada, Florida or Virginia.

Comments: bberger@space.com