Startup Tests Propulsion System for Commercial Space Station

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By BRIAN BERGER

WASHINGTON — Orion Propulsion Inc., a Huntsville, Ala.-based company founded nearly five years ago by the lead propulsion engineer for the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne suborbital space plane, is hard at work this summer producing flight hardware for another first-of-its-kind space venture.

The company announced June 19 that it had completed qualification testing of an environmentally benign forward propulsion system for Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer project, an inflatable space station the Las Vegas venture is billing as the world’s first commercial space habitat.

Sundancer’s
launch plans are up in the air pending the emergence of what Bigelow Aerospace calls “a viable crew transportation system.” But Mike Gold, Bigelow’s corporate counsel, said June 22 that “work is proceeding aggressively on Sundancer and other Bigelow Aerospace systems” as the 100-person company waits for the likes of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies or Denver-based United Launch Alliance to bring commercial crew transport systems to market.

In the meantime, Orion Propulsion is under contract to deliver its first sets of flight hardware to Bigelow in August. Flight hardware production began in early June following completion of a qualification testing program that included thermal vacuum testing, electromagnetic interference testing and acoustic and vibration testing at Orion’s newly expanded 1,200-square meter engineering and production facility.

Tim Pickens, Orion Propulsion’s founder and chief executive officer, said the 5-pound thrusters his company is producing for Bigelow under a $4.8 million contract awarded in May 2008 are designed to burn hydrogen and oxygen produced by Sundancer’s proprietary Environmental Control Life Support System from water, sweat and urine.

Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet is working under a separate $23 million contract on a more conventional hydrazine-fueled aft propulsion system that will work in tandem with Orion’s forward-end propulsion system to provide attitude control for the inflatable space module. Aerojet’s system will also handle periodic reboost as well as the controlled deorbit of Sundancer when Bigelow is ready to retire the space station.

In contrast to Aerojet’s system, the propulsion system Orion is building is completely nontoxic, making it safer for the environment and the people working on the equipment. “The cool thing about these thrusters is we can test them here and there won’t be any hazard in testing them,” Pickens said in a June 22 interview.

In the five years since he left Scaled Composites – the Mojave, Calif.-based builder of SpaceShipOne – Pickens has built a 35-person company, with much of that growth occurring in the past year.

The Bigelow contract helped Orion Propulsion record $5 million in revenue in 2008 and keeps it on track to hit nearly $7 million this year, according to Pickens.

Orion Propulsion is part of Boeing’s Ares 1 upper-stage production team, supporting fabrication and testing of the NASA crew launch vehicle’s roll-control thrusters. Orion also has a subcontracting role on a U.S. Army-sponsored project to build a liquid-booster for a small target vehicle.