Orbital Sciences Corp. considered taking over Delta 2 rocket operations from Boeing before finally deciding to pursue development of its own solution for orbiting medium-sized payloads, which are becoming increasingly expensive to launch and a lower priority for the major launch services companies.


solution, dubbed the Taurus 2,

would take advantage of surplus Russian engines and other cost-saving measures to deliver a launch service priced more in line with what NASA and other U.S. government customers historically have paid to loft medium-sized payloads.

The Dulles, Va.-based satellite and rocket builder announced earlier this year it was moving ahead with development of a

Delta 2-class launcher, but would say little about the configuration of the proposed rocket.

In a Sept. 19 interview, Antonio Elias, Orbital’s senior vice president for advanced programs, disclosed new details about Taurus 2, including a decision to power the main stage with a pair of Russian

NK-33 engines that Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet acquired years ago. Aerojet got the NK-33

s from a Russian manufacturer, made modifications and then

re-branded them as the AJ26-58 engine.

Elias said

Orbital explored a number of other avenues before deciding that

building a new rocket was the best way to provide

U.S. government customers an affordable

launcher for the class of satellites it is adept at building.

“We have been following the entire saga of medium launch vehicle availability and cost for the past couple years,” Elias said. “It turns out that some of our most ambitious satellite projects for us – both for NASA and other parts of the government – are ending up in the sweet spot medium launch capability. Starting when the Air Force announced it was withdrawing support for Delta 2, we’ve been worried that this represents a threat to our space systems and satellite business.”

Elias said Orbital expects to spend $100 million to $120 million on the development of Taurus 2 and conduct its first launch around the middle of 2010, provided the U.S. government commits by sometime next fall to buying a pair of launches.

Orbital is not counting on high launch rates to recoup its investment. He said Taurus 2 could “survive economically” with just two or three launches a year – about half of the total market Orbital forecasts for vehicles in that


After making a cautious start on Taurus 2, Orbital has shifted its efforts into a higher gear, targeting a preliminary design review for mid

December. Negotiations also are under way with a number of potential partners and suppliers, with the goal of having agreements ready to sign upon completion of a successful review. “If all the numbers click to everybody’s satisfaction, then the next day we can sign those agreements,”

Elias said.

Elias said Orbital’s “compact industrial footprint” coupled with its experience sustaining a multiple vehicle product line on a flight rate of three or fewer

launchers per year

would allow the company to provide a medium-lift launch capability priced in line with what a $350 million satellite program can afford to spend on a rocket. Elias said that is something Denver-based United Launch Alliance has been unable to convince NASA and others it can continue to do with Delta 2 in the absence of U.S. Air Force support.

A NASA study completed this year showed that Delta 2 prices, already on the rise, are likely to shoot well above $100 million a launch once the Air Force stops using the rocket, leaving NASA to shoulder most of the costs, including maintaining dedicated launch infrastructure on both coasts.

NASA decided this summer that it could not afford to use Delta 2 much beyond 2010 and that it would be more cost effective to shift its launch traffic to ULA‘s larger Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launch vehicles.

“Six months ago we realized NASA was probably not going to pick up Delta 2,” Elias said. “We looked at what we would have to do to Delta 2 in order to bring the price back to its historical level at half or a third of historical launch rates.”

Elias said the changes Orbital would have needed to make to the Delta 2 to bring its price back down around that $65 million level were comparable to the amount of effort the company would have to put into a new rocket.

Among the changes Orbital contemplated for Delta 2 when it

still was considering breathing new life into the trusty workhorse were increasing the diameter of the rocket’s main stage, eliminating the use of strap-on boosters, and replacing the RS-27 with a more up to date engine that offered, as Elias put it, “more bang for the buck.”

“It turned out that lots of things you would have to do were things we had in mind for our launch vehicle,” Elias said.

Elias would only reveal so much about the Taurus 2 design, declining, for example, to talk at all about the rocket’s second stage, or identify any of Orbital’s potential partners besides Aerojet.

However, he did say that Taurus 2 is

being designed around a 4-meter diameter core that will

allow the rocket eventually to accommodate the medium-class geosynchronous communications satellites that Orbital also

builds. But Elias said development of the type of high-energy upper stage Taurus 2 would need to place such payloads into geostationary transfer orbit would have to wait until there is

enough assured demand to justify the expense.

In the meantime, by using a pair of powerful AJ26-58 engines

for the Taurus 2 main stage

, Orbital expects to avoid the extra cost and complexity of solid strap-on boosters and still deliver up to 6,000 kilograms to a typical low

Earth orbit and 3,700 kilograms to a sun-synchronous orbit.

The AJ26-58 is a modified version of the NK-33 engine, which Russia developed in the 1960s to power the first stage of the

N-1 Moon rocket it ultimately scrapped. Aerojet has 37 such engines in inventory, a purchase option for the more than 30 NK-33’s still located in Samara, Russia, and the manufacturing license and know-how needed to build more of the engines in the United States if demand warrants, an Aerojet official said.

Elias said

there are enough engines on hand to allow Orbital to fly Taurus 2 until a U.S. production capability comes on line.

Minimizing costs

Elias said Orbital intends to minimize Taurus 2’s

development costs by using existing components where possible, maximizing commonalities with Orbital’s other launchers, and outsourcing the manufacture of

parts with high labor costs

– within the limitations of U.S. export control policies.

Elias said Orbital would buy some of the rocket’s structures and other labor intensive components from suppliers in countries such as

Brazil, India and Ukraine. “We would probably not go to China,” he added.

Unlike Delta 2, which is assembled on its launch pad starting weeks ahead of liftoff, Elias said Taurus 2 would be assembled and transported to the launch pad horizontally before being erected for liftoff. Horizontal processing, he said, reduces infrastructure costs and saves time in the event of spacecraft-related or weather-induced launch scrubs.

Before settling on Taurus 2, Orbital also considered taking a financial stake in firms developing new launchers aimed in whole or in part at the Delta 2 market, but concluded none of the existing efforts were worth an investment.

“If the other developers would have demonstrated a faster rate of progress toward a medium-class vehicle, we would not have decided to invest in a new vehicle,” Elias said.

short-lived strategic partnership with Oklahoma City-based RocketplaneKistler (RpK) ended last summer over changes Orbital wanted to make to the K-1 to make the vehicle more affordable at lower launch rates than RpK was predicting. Elias said Orbital pushed for making the K-1’s fully reusable first stage an expendable one

“with the prejudice that if demand does pick up you can always finish development of the reusable first stage.”

President Randy Brinkley said in an e-mail that the changes Orbital proposed were not acceptable to NASA, which had signed up to underwrite development of a fully reusable K-1 when it selected RpK for funding under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS


Orbital took its cash and moved on. RpK has struggled to raise financing and is on the brink of having its COTS agreement terminated for failure to perform.