Thales Alenia Sees Opportunity in Space Station’s New Chapter

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TURIN, Italy — Thales Alenia Space’s space infrastructure facility is negotiating the decline in contract volume following completion of the international space station’s construction and setting its sights on fresh work as part of the station’s prolonged operational life, company officials said Nov. 24.

Extending the life of the orbital complex by at least five years, to 2020, holds out the promise that the company’s 1,000-person site here will be able to leverage its expertise in large payload modules for additional government and commercial contracts.

The idea, company officials said, is to use each contract as a door to open further work. Building the shell of Europe’s Columbus space station laboratory led to work for NASA providing space station connecting nodes and three models of a U.S space shuttle-launched multipurpose logistics module, which has flown 10 times.

That created an opening to provide the structure for Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier, which is destroyed on atmospheric re-entry after each mission. One ATV has flown, a second is scheduled for launch in February and three other ATVs are in preparation.

On the strength of its ATV and other station work, Thales Alenia Space Italy in 2009 won a contract valued at 180 million euros ($245 million) to provide Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., with nine Cygnus cargo modules. Orbital is using Cygnus to provide station cargo under contract to NASA.

The first Cygnus canister is scheduled for launch aboard Orbital’s new Taurus 2 rocket in October 2011.

“This contract [with Orbital] is strategic for the company,” said Luigi Maria Quaglino, Thales Alenia Space’s senior vice president for space infrastructures and transportation. “We were selected for the work not because of any government-to-government agreement or as part of a barter arrangement with NASA. We were selected because of the quality of our work, and we know the ‘Buy America’ pressure in the United States.”

Quaglino said the contract with Orbital — the first Cygnus module will be shipped to the United States in February, with the ninth and last to be delivered in 2015 — allows the company to present to the Italian government concrete evidence of the snowball effect of government investment.

The nine Cygnus modules were placed under contract before the space station partners agreed to keep the facility operating until 2020. The European Space Agency (ESA) has yet to endorse the extension, although ESA and other European government officials say it is a foregone conclusion. What is less clear is what ESA governments will do at the station with the five extra years, knowing that doing more means paying more.

Absent a complete reversal of NASA policy or a major anomaly at Orbital Sciences, the station’s extension almost certainly will result in more Cygnus orders, Thales Alenia Space officials said. Dino Brondolo, the company’s director of space infrastructures, said that for now, Orbital and Thales Alenia Space are focused on the first demonstration launch, and that a contract for new Cygnus modules after 2015 can wait until 2013.

Roberto Provera, Cygnus program manager at Thales Alenia Space, said a NASA-Orbital Sciences team is expected here the week of Nov. 30 for a demonstration of Cygnus cargo loading and unloading procedures. The standard-size Cygnus, to be used for the demonstration mission and the first two commercial launches, can carry 2,000 kilograms of cargo. The enhanced Cygnus, to be used for the six follow-on launches, can carry 2,700 kilograms of cargo. Provera said the cargo demonstration is meant to validate future Cygnus missions carrying closer to the maximum payload complement, and will not have an effect on the date of the inaugural launch.

Thales Alenia Space has been able to use its ATV experience to find weight savings for Cygnus without compromising its mission. One example: The aluminum shell is 3 millimeters thick, as opposed to 3.2 millimeters thick for the ATV, without sacrificing resistance to micrometeorites. The weight savings is equivalent to some 50 kilograms.

ESA’s ATV plans are unclear. Europe is obliged to pay 8.3 percent of the station’s common operating costs, and can make good on this by sending cash to NASA or by providing in-kind services, including ATV launches and other station-related resources that NASA wants. Beyond its pro rata share of station utilities costs, ESA is free to invest as it wishes in the station.

The Italian government recently traded a modified logistic module for a future flight to the station of an Italian astronaut. The module is an enhanced version of the Leonardo module that has visited the station inside the space shuttle. It has been upgraded to become a permanent part of the station and is scheduled for launch aboard NASA’s next shuttle flight, in December. “This is like getting 70 cubic meters of storage space for the station, with minimal development,” Quaglino said.

Brondolo said Thales Alenia Space assumes ESA will continue to provide ATV launches to the station in partial payment of the NASA bill. But ESA has yet to confirm a sixth ATV order, and plans to upgrade ATV to enable it to return cargo to Earth appear to be on hold.

Similarly, a contract to retrofit the three ATVs still in the factory to enable them to carry more cargo has not been fully approved, although preliminary work has begun. Brondolo said the retrofit includes replacing the ATV’s outer shell with lighter-weight Kevlar fiber to protect against debris and meteorites, and changing out heavy payload racks with lighter models. The total weight saving: about 300 kilograms.

“When you consider that the cost of putting a kilogram of payload into orbit is between $30,000 and $40,000, this may be viewed as substantial,” Brondolo said.