ith NASA facing sharply higher prices for Delta 2 rockets

after the U.S. Air Force

stops using the venerable launcher next year, Orbital Sciences Corp. has begun early development of a new launch vehicle to step into the void.

“We have initiated the first phase of development of a launch vehicle we are currently calling Taurus 2,” Orbital Sciences spokesman Barron Beneski said June 14. “It is intended to be a Delta 2-class space launch vehicle but at a substantially lower price.”

Beneski declined to reveal any details about the rocket configuration, but said the Dulles, Va.-based company intends to pay for development itself while seeking an “anchor customer for the early launches,” the first of which could occur by mid-2010. While Orbital Sciences already has committed what he characterized as a non-trivial

sum to the program, Beneski stressed the company is proceeding with caution on what some analysts would consider a financially risky proposition.

“This is not full speed ahead at this point,” he said. “We are going to stop along the way, check our progress and make sure the market is still there for our product.”

Orbital Sciences is not the only U.S. firm shopping a Delta 2 replacement around NASA. Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler and El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies – two firms getting help from NASA developing competing space station re-supply vehicles – say the rockets they are building also could be used to launch the kind of

science payloads the U.S. space agency has traditionally trusted to the Delta 2, but at a fraction of the cost.

Likewise, Alliant Techsystems, which is building the main stage of NASA’s planed Ares 1 crew launch vehicle, is sizing up the market for launching science payloads. ATK spokesman George Torres said the company is “interested in finding ways to work in [the Delta 2] class of vehicle” and is “evaluating partnerships” independent from its role as a systems integrator on Rocketplane Kistler’s K-1 vehicle.

All this jockeying for position is taking place as NASA ponders how much longer to use the Delta 2, its workhorse launcher since 1990. An internal study due in July is intended to help NASA decide whether to stick with the Delta 2 beyond 2009, shift more of its launch traffic to the larger Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets, encourage industry to develop a new medium-lift rocket priced more in line with what the agency historically has paid to launch the bulk of its science spacecraft, or pursue some combination of the three.

NASA has nine Delta 2 launches manifested through 2009. In addition, NASA is procuring a pair of Delta 2 launches for the Missile Defense Agency.

NASA does not disclose what it pays for Delta 2 launches. However, government officials and industry sources said the space agency is paying $80 million and up for each Delta 2 launch it has manifested through 2009.

Prices are projected to rise sharply once the Air Force conducts its last Delta 2 launch as early as the end of 2008, leaving NASA to shoulder the cost of operating the rocket’s California and Florida launch pads and keeping United

Launch Alliance’s Delta 2 assembly line in Decatur, Ala. up and running.

Bidders for NASA’s next Mars Scout mission, for example, were told last year to budget around $120 million for a Delta 2 launching in 2011 while bidders for the next Discovery-class planetary science mission were told to bank on paying around $130 million for a Delta 2 launching in 2013.

Bill Wobble, the former Taurus program director at Orbital Sciences who recently became NASA’s chief rocket buyer, told Space News in mid-May that NASA foresees launching four to six payloads between 2010 and 2012 that are sized for the Delta 2, but whether the agency uses the rocket for any of those missions was still undecided.

Other NASA officials familiar with the agency’s internal deliberations said the next Discovery mission – which could launch as soon as 2011 depending which of the three finalists NASA selects later this year – is likely to launch on a Delta 2. That is because, these officials said, NASA is on the hook for at least one Delta 2 beyond the nine it has manifested. Walking away from that rocket, which had at one time been slated to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, would cost NASA some $50 million in contract termination fees plus whatever the agency would have to pay for the rocket it used instead. A NASA official said the agency is under pressure to decide no later than November whether to use that Delta 2 for the mission known for now as Discovery 12.

But beyond that mission, these officials said, Delta 2 costs threaten to overtake what NASA would have to pay to use the Delta 4 or Atlas 5, larger rockets developed under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which is forecasting flat budgets through the end of the decade, is not eager to accept permanently higher launch costs or be stuck using much larger rockets than many of its payloads need. Scientists told the House Science & Technology Committee earlier this spring that forcing NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to use EELV’s would tempt programs to build bigger, more expensive spacecraft than strictly necessary, or create pressure to launch more than one spacecraft at a time – a programmatic headache for missions with diverse destinations.

NASA’s Delta 2 conundrum is not lost on Orbital Sciences and others developing rockets they say are a better match than EELV for the bulk of NASA science missions. SpaceX President Elon Musk said his company’s Falcon 9 rocket, while designed to be more powerful than the Delta 2, is priced at only $35 million per

launch. With six Falcon 9 launches already under contract between mid-2008 early 2010, Musk said “it wouldn’t be a stretch” to forecast 15 or 16 Falcon 9 launches by the end of 2011 – enough, he believes, to qualify the rocket to carry Discovery-class missions.

Denver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), meanwhile, has not given up on selling Delta 2 to NASA beyond the end of the decade.

“We continue to believe that the Delta [2]

has a place in the launch market for high value payloads, and we are working with our NASA customer to understand all of the available options regarding Delta [2]

and their medium-class mission requirements,” ULA spokeswoman Julie Andrews said June 13.