COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — If congress approves NASA’s plan to add $300 million to its 2011 budget to develop commercial cargo delivery systems for the international space station, Orbital Sciences Corp. Likely would use its share of the funding to augment ground testing of its planned medium-lift Taurus 2 rocket and possibly conduct an additional test flight of the vehicle, according to David W. Thompson, Orbital’s chairman and chief executive.

Orbital is slated to conduct a single demonstration flight of its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule next spring under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The company would then fly eight cargo-delivery missions to the space station through 2015 under a separate $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract.

The additional test flight would loft an instrumented test payload rather than the Cygnus module, Thompson said. The test package “would better define the physical environment for the payload and prove out the rocket before we go all the way” to the space station, he added.

Although no firm plans will be made until the budget is approved, Orbital has evaluated how any COTS budget increase could be used to reduce program risk and accelerate program milestones.

During a media briefing April 13 here at the National Space Symposium, Thompson and other Orbital executives said they were not consulted by NASA on boosting the budget of the COTS program, which is currently valued at $500 million. That money is being divided between Dulles, Va.-based Orbital and Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., both of which are contributing funding to develop their respective cargo-delivery systems.

Thompson said the proposed COTS budget increase follows logically from U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to continue operation of the space station through 2020, adding that once that decision was made, reliable cargo transportation became “even more important.”

To date, COTS and follow-on Commercial Resupply Services flights account for the entire Taurus 2 manifest. But Orbital began developing the vehicle before it signed its COTS agreement to fill what company officials characterize as a gap in U.S. launch capabilities following the impending retirement of the Delta 2 medium-lift rocket.

Thompson said he expects Taurus 2 to begin launching for other customers, including NASA’s Earth science program and the national security community, in 2013, possibly sooner.

Antonio Elias, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, said Taurus 2 would support the national security community by launching what he called “disaggregated” missions. Typically, the U.S. national security community flies large satellites with numerous sensor payloads, but Elias said there is a trend toward dividing that payload set and flying the sensors on separate, smaller satellites.

Orbital has room on its Taurus 2 manifest to add two to three flights a year in addition to the space station resupply missions, said Ronald Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group.

Orbital plans to launch the Taurus 2 rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. The company is expanding the launch pads and ground infrastructure at Wallops to prepare for those flights, Grabe said.

The Taurus 2 includes a first-stage core design by Ukrainian rocket builders Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, a first-stage engine built in Russia but modified by Aerojet of Sacramento, and a stage-two motor built by Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis.

Orbital’s Cygnus module, meanwhile, is designed to deliver 2,000 kilograms of cargo to the international space station. Once on orbit, the cargo-carrying vessel, being built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, would be propelled to the space station by the Orbital-built Common Service Module. Once its cargo is unloaded by space station astronauts, the module would undock and be guided back into the atmosphere, where it would burn up upon re-entry.

Elias said Orbital could develop a Cygnus variant capable of returning space station cargo safely to Earth within two years if asked to do so by NASA. He said that vehicle would have to be equipped with heat shielding and parachutes, and that the extra weight of those items would reduce by half the amount of cargo it could deliver to the space station.

“You don’t use that configuration unless you absolutely, positively need that return cargo,” Elias said. He said a company analysis of the type of return cargo that would be valuable enough for NASA to give up 1,000 kilograms of cargo-to-station delivery capacity identified only one item: the suits astronauts wear during spacewalks.

The re-entry module under discussion is not designed to carry astronauts to and from the space station. Orbital will not be able to provide information on the cost and capability of a commercial crew vehicle until the company knows how NASA would structure the procurement of such a spacecraft and what the requirements would be, Elias said.


Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...