NASA has agreed to invest $171 million in a new medium-lift launch system Orbital Sciences Corp. wants to field in 2010 to deliver satellites to orbit and cargo to the international space station.

The U.S. space agency is subsidizing the new launch system under its $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is aimed at fostering privately owned alternatives to the space shuttle and other government systems for ferrying crew and cargo to the space station.

Orbital beat out 12 other teams – several of which built their proposals around existing rockets – to win a NASA Space Act Agreement worth $171 million.

Under the terms of the agreement, Orbital intends to combine NASA’s contribution with $150 million in private money to develop a new expendable rocket and an automated, modular supply ship and launch the pair to the space station in December 2010 to prove the system’s suitability for cargo-delivery missions.

The U.S. space agency intends to hold an open competition this spring for actual space station cargo-delivery contracts


Orbital, of Dulles, Va., is one of just two companies receiving financial help from NASA to develop their proposed systems. The other is Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif., which intends to carry astronauts and supplies to the station using its reusable Dragon capsule launched atop

Falcon 9 rocket, which, according to the company’s

Web site, is slated to make its debut in the fourth quarter of 2008.

NASA estimates it will need to launch up to 16 metric tons of materials a year to the space station once construction of the orbital facility is completed in 2010.

Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said Orbital maintains that its proposed system

could handle all 16 metric tons with eight separate flights. He declined to disclose Orbital’s proposed price per flight, but said the rates were attractive.

NASA’s Feb. 19 award to Orbital became possible last fall after the agency ended its COTS agreement with RocketplaneKistler, which was unable to raise the $500 million in private financing it needed to finish its K-1 reusable rocket. RocketplaneKistler of Oklahoma City and Space Exploration Technologies were the original COTS awardees.

NASA received a total of 13 proposals in November, and narrowed the field to five finalists in January before picking Orbital. The other four finalists, according to industry sources, were Andrews Space, Boeing, PlanetSpace and Spacehab.

A key part of Orbital’s winning COTS proposal is Taurus 2, a medium-lift rocket the company announced last year it was developing to compete for government and commercial contracts that in the past have gone to United Launch Alliance‘s Delta 2, a highly

reliable rocket with an uncertain future due to its escalating price tag.

While NASA officials did not explicitly mention the Taurus 2’s application as a Delta 2-class satellite launcher,

they did cite the strength of Orbital’s overall business plan as a factor in their selection.

“The business case is an important part of these [COTS proposals] and you want to see someone come in with a real commitment and be sustainable and Orbital definitely did that,” said Doug Cooke, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems and source selection official for the competition.

Cooke told reporters that Orbital’s financial contributions would be significant.

Antonio Elias, Orbital’s executive vice president for advanced programs, said in an interview the company expects to invest about $150 million in its proposed re-supply system, a figure that includes $130 million to develop Taurus 2 and

$20 million worth of modifications to Orbital’s Star 2 geostationary satellite platform, which will serve as a guidance and propulsion module for interchangeable, pressurized and unpressurized cargo modules.

Dubbed Cygnus, the modular cargo craft would make use of technologies Orbital developed several years ago as prime contractor for NASA’s Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) mission, which launched in 2005. While DART successfully located the retired military satellite that served as its target and began its approach, multiple malfunctions caused DART to bump into the satellite, then fly off prematurely, bringing the mission to an end without accomplishing its primary objectives.

said DART’s failure was not held against Orbital. “There is significant experience gained and lessons learned from spacecraft testing and mission failures,” Lindenmoyer said in an e-mail. “Orbital has solid plans to use the knowledge obtained during the DART mission as well as other proven technologies in the development of its rendezvous and proximity operations system.”

Elias said the Taurus 2’s liquid-fueled main stage would be powered by surplus Russian NK-33 engines acquired by Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet over a decade ago. RocketplaneKistler intended to use the same engine – now called the AJ-26 – for the K-1’s main stage. Glenn Mahone, Aerojet’s Washington-based spokesman, told Space News that RocketplaneKistler has no claim to the AJ-26 inventory or any associated intellectual property.

The upper stage of the Taurus 2 would be powered by a Castor 30 solid-rocket motor to be built by AlliantTechsystems, the same company that builds the space shuttle’s giant solid-rocket boosters and serves as prime contractor for the main stage of NASA’s Ares 1 crew launch vehicle.

“We are very pleased to be part of this team for the first announced use of the Castor 30,” AlliantTechsystems spokesman George Torres said Feb. 20. “We have been developing it in house for last couple years. It also has applications for prompt global strike and missile defense, in addition to space launch.”

The Castor 30 is based on the Castor 120 motor that powers the first stage of the commercial version of Orbital’s current Taurus rocket. AlliantTechsystems also intends to use the Castor 30 on the medium-lift Athena 3 rocket it proposed for COTS as a subcontractor to Chicago-based PlanetSpace. AlliantTechsystems officials had said earlier this year that a PlanetSpace COTS win would enable a more aggressive development schedule for Athena 3, which AlliantTechsystems intends to market to government and commercial customers.

Torres was not ready to say what NASA’s COTS decision would mean for AlliantTechsystems’s Athena 3 plans.

“On Athena 3, we are going to wait until we get our debrief from NASA, which is in a week, and want to see what drove the decision,” Torres said. “We do believe it’s a good concept and we had excellent feedback from a number of other customers besides NASA.”

Torres said ATK has four letters of intent from customers interested in using

the upper portion of the Athena 3 on its own as a small launch vehicle. “We are going to assess all that and discuss next steps,” he said.

Orbital’s Global Solution

The AJ-26 engine would not be the only part of the Taurus 2 with non-U.S. heritage. The rocket’s main-stage fuel tanks and associated plumbing would be built by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye organization.

The pressurized cargo module, meanwhile, would be based on the Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module that Orbital’s COTS partner, ThalesAlenia Space, built as part of the Italian space agency’s contribution to the space station.

Elias said Orbital would certainly start off building the pressurized cargo modules in Europe but would remain there only if it proves to be the most cost effective approach.

“They have the corporate know how and expertise. They claim that they are very labor efficient,” Elias said. “On the other hand the euro-to-dollar exchange rate is something that concerns us.”

The unpressurized cargo module Orbital proposed would be based on the Express Logistics Pallet it is helping NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center of Greenbelt, Md., build to enable the space shuttle to deliver large loads of spare parts to the outside of the space station.

Orbital plans to operate Taurus 2 not from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but from NASA’s Wallops Space Flight Facility in Virginia, the same facility Orbital uses to launch its Minotaur rockets. “As a Virginia company we are naturally inclined to favor our home state,” Elias said, noting that Orbital’s headquarters are located only an hour by private plane from the coastal launch facility.

“Wallops has the additional advantage from our standpoint that we are the 100 pound gorilla and therefore we can quite honestly affect the outcome of things at Wallops with a little more mass than we could down south where we are relatively small and limited compared with larger programs such as shuttle and others,” Elias said.

NASA currently depends on the space shuttle and Russian Progress spacecraft to deliver supplies to the space station. After the shuttle retires in 2010, the space station will be dependent on European, Japanese and Russian spacecraft for logistics until NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle or a U.S. commercial alternative enters service.

With Orion not scheduled to make its debut until March 2015 and no guarantee that the U.S. private sector will succeed in fielding a commercial alternative, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin asked Congress Feb. 13 for legislation this year to permit the agency to place a new order with Russia for additional Progress unmanned supply ships and Soyuz crew capsules.

NASA already has agreed to buy roughly $700 million worth of such services from Russia through 2011, when a temporary congressional waiver of the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-proliferation Act is due to expire. The law prevents NASA from buying space station-related goods and services from Russia as long as that country’s aerospace sector continues to help Iran acquire missiles and other advanced weapons.

Elias said Orbital expects to conduct its first demonstration flight to the international space station in December 2010. The company has not decided whether the Taurus 2 will carry a pressurized or an unpressurized cargo module on that flight, but Elias said the company is leaning toward the latter for simplicity’s sake. In either case, the module will not carry cargo on the demonstration flight, the purpose of which is to show that the vehicle can safely approach the space station and berth with the assistance of the station’s robotic arm.

As for whether the space station demonstration would be the Taurus 2’s first flight, Elias said that depends on whether Orbital is able to find another customer who wants to be first. The Taurus 2, under Orbital’s schedule, is expected to be ready by summer 2010, with one or the other cargo module ready to make its debut several months later.

Elias said Orbital has had a paying customer for all of its debut launches to date and expects that to be the case for Taurus 2 as well, even if the COTS demo is not the first launch.

“We don’t think we are going to be ready for a first flight much [earlier] than summer of 2010, and that’s too early for the spacecraft,” Elias said. “The spacecraft will not be ready by then. So if we find a paying customer that is interested in a flight in the summer of 2010, then most likely COTS will be the second flight. If we do not find a paying customer for the first flight, then COTS may be the first flight.”