Orbital’s Glory Launch Failure Review Nears Conclusion

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PARIS — Satellite and rocket manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp. expects by the end of April to have a firm grasp of what caused the March 4 failure of its Taurus XL rocket’s fairing to separate, resulting in the loss of a $424 million NASA climate-observation satellite in the second consecutive fairing-related failure of the rocket in two years, Orbital officials said April 21.

In a conference call with financial analysts, Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said the company has not seen NASA or other prospective customers backing away from future use of the Taurus XL rocket. He said the Dulles, Va.-based company expects to continue to sell Taurus XL launch services to NASA and other U.S. government agencies for the foreseeable future.

 Thompson admitted that the loss of the Glory satellite, in the wake of the 2009 loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, or OCO, spacecraft — for what appear to be similar fairing-related reasons — has put pressure on Orbital to end its failure-investigation review with definitive results. 

“Customers want to make sure we understand [what happened] to make sure the problem does not come back again,” Thompson said. But he added: “We’re not anticipating any pushback in the use of Taurus XL.”

The Glory launch failure means Orbital will not be paid an expected $11 million in incentive fees on that launch contract. As a result, Orbital’s operating income for the three months ending March 31 dropped sharply compared to the same period a year earlier.

But that dent in the operating-income line of Orbital’s financial statement will be almost fully offset by an $11 million insurance claim related to the failure. Orbital purchased, on the commercial market, insurance against the loss of the incentive payment.

Thompson said Orbital expects to spend about $1.5 million on the Taurus XL failure review.

Orbital Chief Operating Officer J.R. Thompson said during the call that the company is nearing a conclusion of the investigation — NASA has a separate panel looking at what happened — and expects to be able to “focus on corrective actions and a go-forward plan by the end of this month. The fairing problem that occurred is one we think we have a pretty good understanding of. We need to complete some additional testing this week and next week to confirm we are on the right track.”

Orbital’s principal development program remains its new Taurus 2 rocket and the Cygnus cargo vehicle it will carry to the international space station under contract to NASA.

The Taurus 2 schedule has slipped by about a month since early this year. NASA has agreed to fund a test flight of the rocket without the Cygnus capsule. That inaugural flight, from a new launch complex on Wallops Island, Va., is now scheduled for early October, although the schedule “remains tight, with some slippage, and cost pressures continue,” J.R. Thompson said.

A key milestone will be U.S. government certification of the Wallops facility. “This will pace our schedule for Taurus 2 entering the market,” J.R. Thompson said of the spaceport-certification process.

Assuming a successful October Taurus 2 test flight, the vehicle’s flight with the Cygnus capsule would occur in December, J.R. Thompson said.

David Thompson said the company, a major NASA contractor, has made a preliminary review of the U.S. space agency’s latest budget and concluded that, with respect to Orbital’s work, the news is not that bad.

He said Orbital’s losing bid for work on NASA’s Commercial Crew Development 2 program, which is intended to nurture commercially operated astronaut-transport systems, will likely lead the company to shut down those operations unless some other opportunity arises.

 

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