Commercial Space News
Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and David Vitter (R-LA) are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to undertake a "full review" of NASA's commercial cargo contracts. Both contractors, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, are recovering from launch failures that affected resupply of the International Space Station (ISS).
The request for a GAO review is the latest in congressional expressions of concern about NASA's commercial cargo program.
Gardner and Vitter sent their letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO, yesterday (September 1). They ask eight questions centering on the cost and operational impact on the ISS program of the two commercial cargo launch failures and "the demonstrated, statistical reliability of contracted commercial launch systems to provide subsequent launch services at reasonable and expected reliability levels."
Orbital ATK's Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds after liftoff on June 28, 2015. Both were carrying cargo spacecraft, Cygnus and Dragon, respectively, loaded with supplies, equipment and scientific experiments for the ISS. Neither rocket has returned to flight yet.
Orbital ATK will use two Atlas V rockets to loft Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS in December 2015 and March 2016 while its Antares rocket fleet is being outfitted with new engines. Orbital ATK contracted for the Atlas V launches from Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
SpaceX's plans for return to flight are not firm.
The Orbital ATK and Space X cargo launches to ISS are under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. NASA issued a solicitation for the next round of commercial cargo launches, CRS-2, in September 2014. A decision was expected in June, but that slipped to September and now to November. In addition to the incumbents, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada are reported to be among the bidders.
The Senators said that the fact there are no operational U.S. commercial cargo providers at the moment "shows the immediate and urgent need for appropriate oversight and corrective action prior to restarting operations." However, while they see the need for an independent review, "we also believe that the current missions and pending contracts should continue to proceed uninterrupted." The reference to pending contracts presumably means CRS-2. No deadline is requested for GAO to complete its review other than asking for a "prompt" response.
Four cargo spacecraft can resupply the ISS. In addition to the two U.S. systems, Russia's Progress and Japan's HTV take cargo to the crews. (The European Space Agency no longer launches its ATV cargo spacecraft.)
Russia had its own failure with the Progress M-27M mission on April 28, 2015, but Progress M-28M was successfully launched in July. Japan's HTV5 mission enjoyed a flawless launch on August 19 and is now attached to the ISS along with Progress M-28M.
Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson said today that return-to-flight of the Antares rocket now will be in "spring" 2016. Earlier indications were that it would be in March. Instead, a second launch of the company's Cygnus cargo spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket now is planned in March.
Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Group, revealed the new plans at AIAA's Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, CA.
The company's Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia on October 28, 2014. The official report on the cause of the accident has not been released, but it is known that the problem affected the rocket's Russian-built NK-33 engines. The NK-33's are refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26. Orbital ATK is replacing them with a different Russian engine, the RD-181. The "re-engined" Antares will be able to lift more mass than the original version as well as using newer technology. The NK-33s date back more than 40 years.
Under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK is committed to delivering 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. The company also upgraded the Cygnus spacecraft to carry more cargo so it will take fewer missions to meet that 20 ton requirement. To ensure that it also meets the deadline, Orbital ATK contracted for two Cygnus launches on ULA's Atlas V while the Antares is being retrofitted.
Orbital ATK announced the plans to buy at least one ULA launch with an option for a second in December 2014. Last month, it said it had, indeed, purchased a second Atlas V launch, but did not say when the second launch would take place. Today was the first indication that both ULA launches would occur before Antares returns to service.
NASA officials have publicly identified December 3 as the date for the first Cygnus launch on an Atlas V for some time and Culbertson confirmed that today. He then added that the second Atlas V launch would be in March, followed by a return to flight of Antares in "the spring" and a total of two or three -- "I'm hoping three" -- Cygnus launches on Antares in 2016.
Orbital ATK is one of two U.S. companies that send cargo to the ISS under NASA's CRS contract. SpaceX is the other and it suffered its own launch failure on June 28, 2015. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told the AIAA conference on Monday that it would be "a couple months" yet before the Falcon 9 returned to flight.
Some members of Congress have expressed concern about how the accidents are being investigated and more broadly how NASA contracts for commercial cargo services for the ISS. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked NASA why it created an Independent Review Team following the Orbital launch failure, but not SpaceX's and whether that implied SpaceX was getting preferential treatment. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden replied last week that NASA's role in both investigations actually is quite similar.
Yesterday, Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and David Vitter (R-LA) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to undertake a "full review" of NASA's "contracted launch services and capsules."
Orbital ATK and SpaceX are the only CRS contractors now, but NASA opened a CRS-2 procurement in September 2014. Expectations were that it would announce the winners in June. That slipped to September and now to November. In addition to the incumbents, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Nevada are reported to be among the bidders.
Boeing and SpaceX won NASA's commercial crew contracts last fall and Boeing seems to be betting on a win in the CRS-2 contract as well. On Friday, it will hold an opening ceremony for its "Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility" at Kennedy Space Center, FL.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said today that it will be a "couple of months" before the Falcon 9 rocket returns to flight, longer than the company anticipated. She also said it would be the first flight of an upgraded version of the rocket.
Speaking on a panel at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, CA, Shotwell said the company still believes that the cause of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure was a bad strut in the upper stage. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced that preliminary finding in late July, but said the investigation was ongoing. Shotwell said today nothing has changed that diagnosis.
She said it now was not just a matter of fixing the problem, which is "easy," but taking advantage of lessons learned and ensuring there are no other problems in the vehicle or the supply chain. It is "taking more time than we originally envisioned," but she does not expect customers to object since they do not want to rush and potentially have another failure.
Shotwell characterized fixing technical problems as "fun challenges." The bigger challenge for SpaceX, she said, is "maintaining the fast pace of innovation" while still executing the launch manifest for its customers. "We don't want to lose that pace of innovation ... that sense of our genetics, how we grew up" while still providing reliable, predictable launches.
The panel was entitled "Executive Vision Discussion" and in addition to Shotwell featured NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Lockheed Martin Vice President and General Manger for Civil Space Wanda Sigur, and Vice Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry. AIAA President and former Boeing executive Jim Albaugh served as moderator.
Albaugh asked all the panelists what they thought a comparable panel in 2035 would be talking about.
Shotwell said she hoped they'd be discussing new propulsion systems "to take us out of the galaxy."
Lightfoot replied that he hoped they would be talking about the results of samples returned from Mars. Separately he was asked "are we less than 20 years away from humans on Mars?" NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has used that as a theme recently, insisting that, for the first time, it is a reality. Lightfoot was more circumspect, saying he expected humans to be "around Mars at least" in the mid-2030s, but landing large masses has many challenges.
NASA's "Journey to Mars" was a major theme for LIghtfoot and Sigur. Sigur opened the panel by presenting a plaque to AIAA commemorating last December's Orion test. She and Lightfoot pointed to the difficulty in pursuing such a long term mission when the set of politicians who determine policy and budgets change every two years.
McMurry, on the other hand, quipped that sending people to Mars was not his focus. His message was three-fold: resilience is the watchword of the day, but "we have to figure out what resilience is" and how to measure it; protecting space systems from cybersecurity threats is important, but many space systems "are older than me" and the key is to focus not on how to prevent an attack, but how to cope with it when it happens; and the national security community needs to change its "mindset" in this new era of commercial spaceflight.
Summer is coming to an end and this will be the last of our "summer vacation" multi-week lists of upcoming space policy events. This edition covers two weeks, August 31-September 11. The House and Senate return to work on September 8.
During the Week
This week begins with AIAA's Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, CA tomorrow (Monday) through Wednesday. If you can't be there in person, AIAA is providing a livestream of at least some of the sessions (the event's website does not indicate which ones). Four plenary sessions may be of particular interest and hopefully are among those that will be webcast:
Another event of special interest is the launch of Soyuz TMA-18M very early Wednesday morning (12:37 am Eastern Daylight Time--EDT). This mission is a bit of an anomaly in recent years where two of the three crew will remain on board the International Space Station (ISS) for just one week instead of several months. ESA's Andreas Mogensen and Kazakhstan's Aidyn Aimbetov will return to Earth on September 11 EDT (September 12 local time at the landing site) along with Russia's Gennady Padalka, who has been on ISS since March. Padalka launched with NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko and those two are staying aboard for a one-year mission, but their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft can only remain on orbit for six months so it and Padalka -- along with Mogensen and Aimbetov -- will come back to Earth. Russia's Sergei Volkov will command Soyuz TMA-18M and replace Padalka.
Mogensen and Aimbetov's time aboard ISS will be even shorter than expected because last week the decision was made to use the two-day rendezvous trajectory to get there instead of the new six-hour direct ascent route introduced for crew launches on Soyuz TMA-08M in March 2013. The two-day trip is necessary because the ISS orbit was raised recently to avoid a piece of space junk, changing the orbital dynamics involved in getting there. The new orbit also caused a one day slip in the launch date (from September 1). The Soyuz TMA-18M crew now will arrive on September 4, giving Mogensen and Aimbetov just seven and a half days on ISS. It may be just as well since the ISS will be a bit crowded -- for the first time since November 2013, there will be nine people aboard. On the other hand, ESA said that it means significant replanning of Mogensen's research activities and some experiments will have to be left for other astronauts to complete in the future.
Aimbetov, by the way, was a last minute addition to the crew after singer Sarah Brightman withdrew from the mission. A military pilot, he was selected as a Kazakh cosmonaut in 2002 and trained at Star City. He became a Russian citizen along the way, but is flying as a Kazakh, not Russian, crew member. He was assigned to the flight in June and Kazakh officials say they are paying $20 million, so he apparently is filling Brightman's "space tourist" slot, although he has been through the full training regimen. He will be the third Kazakh cosmonaut (after Toktar Aubakirov and Talgat Musabayev), not counting Soviet cosmonauts from Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Those events and others that we know about as of today (August 30) for the next two weeks are listed below.
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
Tuesday, September 1
Wednesday, September 2
Wednesday-Friday, September 2-4
Friday, September 4
Tuesday, September 8
Tuesday-Thursday, September 8-10
Wednesday, September 9
Thursday, September 10
Friday, September 11
UPDATE, August 28, 2015, 11:25 pm EDT: the upper stage firings were successful and Inmarsat-5 F3 has been successfully delivered into geostationary orbit.
UPDATE, August 28, 2015, 8:00 am EDT: Liftoff took place as planned and the three-stage Proton-M rocket appears to have performed flawlessly. The Briz-M upper stage is now making the first of five firings to place the satellite into geostationary orbit. It will take 15 hours and 31 minutes for the satellite to reach its destination.
ORIGINAL STORY, August 27, 2015: Russia plans to launch an Inmarsat satellite using its Proton-M rocket on Friday, August 28. It is the first Proton-M launch since a May 2015 failure destroyed a Mexican communications satellite. The once reliable Proton, the largest of Russia's current fleet, has suffered a number of failures in recent years, but typically returns to flight after a few months, as is true this time.
U.S.-based International Launch Services (ILS) markets the Proton globally and will broadcast Friday's launch of Inmarsat-5 F3 on its website. The launch of the Proton-M with a Briz-M upper stage is scheduled for 14:44 Moscow Time, which is 12:44 British Summer Time (in London where Inmarsat is headquartered), which is 11:44 GMT, which is 7:44 am EDT. (Note that ILS incorrectly tweeted today, Thursday, that the launch is at 12:44 GMT. As Inmarsat's website attests, it is at 12:44 BST, or 11:44 GMT).
The May 16, 2015 Proton failure 497 seconds after launch was attributed to an old design flaw that affects the turbopump for the rocket's third stage steering engine. In investigating this accident, Russia engineers determined that the same flaw caused a failure almost three decades ago, in 1988, that previously was thought to have been caused by a manufacturing defect. This year's failure doomed Mexico's MexSat-1 (Centenario) communications satellite, the second of three in that series. The third is scheduled for launch on a Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket in October 2015.
At the time of the MexSat-1 failure, the President of Inmarsat, Rupert Pearce, issued a statement sounding highly displeased since it was the third time the company's Global Xpress system was encountering delays because of Proton failures. Ironically, Pearce expressed relief that the company had another satellite under construction and a "potential" SpaceX launch in the second half of 2016 in case Proton was delayed for a long time or this return-to-flight failed. A month later, SpaceX suffered its own launch failure and has not announced when it will resume launches.
Russia is developing a new series of rockets, Angara, to replace Proton and other Soviet-era launch vehicles, several of which have failed in recent years. The May 16 Proton failure came on the heels of a Soyuz failure that placed the Progress M-27M spacecraft in the wrong orbit from which it quickly reentered. SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on Russian launch failures since December 2010 lists them.
Assuming all goes well, the Inmarsat-5 F3 satellite will reach geostationary orbit 15 hours and 31 minutes after liftoff, Inmarsat explains. Once operational, it will join two previously launched satellites in providing Ka-band global high speed broadband network connectivity -- the Global Xpress service. This satellite will cover the Pacific Ocean region. Inmarsat-5 F1 covers the Indian Ocean region, while Inmarsat-5 F2 covers the Americas and Atlantic Ocean region. Both were launched by Proton rockets, in December 2013 and February 2015 respectively.
NASA told Congress this week that it is not giving SpaceX special treatment in the investigation of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 launch failures, but that the investigations are quite similar. It said the perception that NASA's role in studying the SpaceX failure is less intense is the result of a misunderstanding.
House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) wrote to NASA earlier this month asking a series of questions about NASA's role in finding the causes of the two failures: the October 28, 2014 failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket with a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) and the June 28, 2015 failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule also full of supplies for the ISS. Both launches were under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract between NASA and the two companies. The Antares/Cygnus launch was Orbital's third CRS launch, Orb-3. SpaceX's launch was its seventh under the CRS contract -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.
As commercial launches, they were licensed by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and the accident investigations conducted pursuant to AST regulations. Accordingly, the companies themselves are in charge of the investigations, not the FAA or NASA.
Smith basically wanted to know why NASA set up an Independent Review Team (IRT) in the wake of the Orb-3 accident, but did not for SpX-7 and whether that implied that SpaceX was being given preferential treatment.
NASA's August 24 response, signed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, was that although it may not seem so on the surface, NASA's handling of both launch failures is similar. The major difference is that Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK following a merger with ATK earlier this year) is only providing Antares launch services to NASA under the CRS contract while SpaceX's Falcon 9 may also be used for other NASA launches, such as the upcoming launch of the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite, under a different NASA contract, NASA Launch Services II (NLS II). Furthermore, Falcon 9 will be used for SpaceX's launches of crew to the ISS under the commercial crew program. Antares will not.
Bolden's argument is that NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP), which administers the NLS II contract, and commercial crew program have sufficient insight into SpaceX's activities to satisfy the function of an IRT.
NASA chose to establish an IRT for the Orb-3 failure and "[w]hile it may not have been as visible, we chose to do a similar thing for the SpaceX failure, conducting an independent review, but using existing mechanisms that were already in place," Bolden wrote. Because of this "misunderstanding," many of the questions posed by Smith were "written under an incorrect premise...."
The five page letter, plus enclosures, goes on to respond to the "spirit of those questions," concluding that NASA is, in fact, conducting independent reviews of both failures and of the Orbital ATK and SpaceX "approaches to return to flight." One of the enclosures is an August 3 memorandum for the record from NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, stating that "I have been closely observing the inclusion of NASA in the [Falcon 9 failure] investigation and have determined that NASA LSP should serve the function of an independent review team for NASA for this investigation."
Orbital ATK determined that a malfunction of the NK33/AJ-26 Russian rocket engines on Antares caused the Orb-3 failure, although the official report has not been released yet. It will use a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo launch (OA-4) to ISS in December. Antares is expected to return to flight, outfitted with different Russian rocket engines, in March 2016.
SpaceX made a preliminary finding that the SpX-7 failure was due to a bad strut in the rocket's upper stage, but the investigation is ongoing and the company has not announced when the Falcon 9 will return to flight or what it will launch. SpaceX has a long list of customers, both commercial and government, for Falcon 9 launches.
The next Falcon 9 NASA launch is Jason-3, which was supposed to go in July after several earlier satellite-related delays. During a media telecon today on NASA's studies of sea level rise, JPL's Josh Willis said the launch could take place later this year or early next, depending on when the Falcon 9 resumes service. He said the launch would take place as soon as possible, but only when it can be done safely. Jason-3 is a cooperative program between NOAA and Europe's EUMETSAT, with participation by NASA and its French counterpart, CNES. NASA and CNES built the first two in the series and a predecessor, Topex-Poseidon.
Summer will be over before we know it, but for now, our list of upcoming space policy events still spans the next couple of weeks while "business" is slow. Congress returns on September 8, the day after Labor Day.
During the Week
This week starts off with the docking of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) HTV5 (Kounotori5) cargo spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft was successfully launched on Wednesday and has been catching up with ISS ever since. JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui is aboard ISS and will be at the controls of Canada's robotic Canadarn2 tomorrow morning (Monday) to capture it. That event is expected about 6:55 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). NASA TV coverage begins at 5:15 am EDT. JAXA's coverage begins at 6:05 am EDT. Installation of HTV5 onto the Harmony node will follow at about 9:45 am EDT. The crew surely will be happy to get those 9,500 pounds of supplies, equipment and science experiments following the three cargo mission failures (one U.S. Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus, one Russian Soyuz/Progress, and one U.S. SpaceX Falcon/Dragon) since last October. It should be noted, of course, that there also have been five successful cargo missions (three Russian Progresses and two U.S. SpaceX Dragons) during that time, which, if anything, demonstrates just how much resupply from Earth is needed to sustain the crew and their work.
Tomorrow also is the first day of the three-day Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) meeting at the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD. These "AGs" -- assessment groups or analysis groups but NOT "advisory" groups -- apparently no longer are officially part of NASA's advisory process, but are still an opportunity for members of the relevant science community to get together and interact with each other and NASA officials. The meeting is available virtually via WebEx and telecon. Among the many interesting sessions, Bob Pappalardo will talk about plans for the Europa mission on Monday at 3:15 pm ET and Alan Stern is scheduled to talk about the New Horizons Pluto mission on Tuesday at 1:30 pm ET.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is scheduled to speak at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) luncheon on Tuesday. (The event is listed on MSBR's website, but the link to the flyer is inactive. We assume that's a glitch and the event is going on as planned, but you might want to check with MSBR to be sure). Edwards is the top Democrat ("ranking member") on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and a strong NASA supporter, especially of projects at Goddard Space Flight Center near her district. Her interest in space goes much further, though. Never mind just trying to convince her colleagues to fund NASA's "Journey to Mars," she has said publicly that she wants to go there herself. Right now, though, she is focused on her current job representing Maryland's 4th congressional district and running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
On Friday, the Earth Science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council will meet telephonically. An agenda is not yet posted on the subcommittee's website, but the Federal Register notice says it is an annual performance review of the Earth Science program as required under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. The public is welcome to listen in.
Those events and others coming up the first week of September that we know about as of today, August 23, are listed below.
Monday, August 24
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
Tuesday, September 1
Wednesday, September 2
Wednesday-Friday, September 2-4
Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events. This edition covers the next three weeks, through Labor Day Weekend when "summer" unofficially ends for those of us in the United States. Labor Day is the first Monday in September. This year it is September 7. Congress and the regular routine of business return on September 8.
During the Week
This coming week leaves lots of time for summer fun, with just one event on our calendar at the moment -- the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) launch of the HTV5 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch has been delayed twice already because of weather and JAXA cautions that more weather delays are possible. For now the launch is scheduled for Wednesday, August 19, at 7:50 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). NASA TV will provide coverage beginning at 7:00 am EDT. The cargo capsule is named Kounotori (white stork) so this is sometimes referred to as Kounotori-5.
This is the fifth Japanese cargo mission to ISS and a Japanese astronaut is aboard ISS to welcome it. Kimiya Yui arrived on July 22 with his Soyuz TMA-17M crew mates Kjell Lindgren (NASA) and Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos). The other three ISS crew members are Gennady Padalka (Roscosmos), Mikhail Kornienko (Roscosmos), and Scott Kelly (NASA). Kelly and Kornienko are not quite mid-way through their "year in space." Yesterday was day 141 according to Kelly, who regularly tweets (@StationCDRKelly) about his experiences. Whenever it launches, HTV5 should arrive at the ISS five days later.
That and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Wednesday, August 19
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
Tuesday, September 1
Wednesday-Friday, September 2-4
Orbital ATK revealed today that it has purchased a second Atlas V rocket to launch a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The company already planned to use Atlas V for a December launch and now will use a second in 2016 along with two or three launches of its revamped Antares rocket. An October 2014 Antares failure was the first of three failed cargo launches to ISS in less than a year that disrupted cargo deliveries, although NASA insists that U.S. ISS operations are unaffected.
The company plans to use an Atlas V to launch Cygnus in December 2015, the first Cygnus launch under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA since the October 2014 failure. Today's press release said only "early December," but NASA officials have publicly stated that the launch is scheduled for December 3. Orbital ATK refers to it as the "OA-4" mission. Two successful Antares/Cygnus CRS cargo missions were flown by Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orb-1 and Orb-2) before its merger with ATK earlier this year. The third in the series, Orb-3, was the failure.
In 2016, Orbital ATK will carry out "at least three more CRS missions: two (or possibly three) will be launched by Antares rockets ... and one more will be launched aboard Atlas V," according to Orbital ATK Space Systems President Frank Culbertson.
The Antares return-to-flight mission is expected in the first quarter of 2016 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, VA. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said last week that repairs to the MARS facility, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, are almost complete. Virginia Space, Orbital ATK and NASA are equally sharing the $15 million cost of the repairs. McAuliffe said that a new arrangement has been negotiated with Orbital ATK regarding repair costs and insurance coverage for future missions.
The October 2014 Antares failure was caused by one of the Russian NK33 rocket engines (refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26) and Orbital ATK is replacing them with a different Russian engine, RD-181. Two engines are needed for each Antares rocket and Orbital ATK President and CEO David Thompson said during an investor teleconference last week that the engines were delivered in June and are being integrated into the Antares airframe now. The retrofitted Antares will roll out to the pad in January for a "hot fire" engine test, Thompson added, although today's announcement said it could take place late this year or in January. No announcement was made about exactly when the launch is planned, but March has been mentioned elsewhere.
Under the original CRS contract, Orbital ATK and its competitor, SpaceX, are each required to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. NASA awarded extensions to both companies' contracts to cover launches in 2017. Thompson said last week that Orbital ATK was awarded two of them. Orbital ATK has upgraded the Cygnus capsule so it can carry more mass so it anticipates that it can meet its contractual requirements using fewer launches than previously planned.
NASA and its ISS partners are recovering from a spate of cargo launch failures: the October 28, 2014 Antares failure, a Russian Progress M-27M failure on April 28, 2015, and a SpaceX CRS-7 failure on June 28, 2015. The Russians have since successfully launched another Progress. A date for SpaceX Falcon 9 launches to resume has not been announced.
The next cargo mission to the ISS will be Japan's HTV5, which is scheduled for August 16, 2015. Europe no longer launches its ATV cargo vehicle, so Japan's HTV, Russia's Progress, and the two U.S. capsules -- Orbital ATK's Cygnus and SpaceX's Dragon -- are the four vehicles used to deliver cargo at the present time.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today that in this changing launch services environment, the Air Force needs to take it slow in planning competitive launch services procurements before committing to something without adequate knowledge.
The GAO looked at the Air Force's plan to acquire future launch services under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Since 2006, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been a monopoly in providing EELV launches using the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but with the certification of SpaceX to offer EELV launch services in the future, a competitive environment has reemerged.
GAO explains that the Air Force currently acquires launch services from ULA under a cost-reimbursement, rather than fixed price, contract. The cost-reimbursement contract requires ULA to give the Air Force cost and performance data that the Air Force can use to monitor contractor performance and identify risks that can affect schedule and cost. In the new competitive environment, however, the Air Force plans to move to firm fixed price (FFP) contracts where that data will not be available. That creates a good news, bad news situation where the price for launches may be less with FFP contracts, but the Air Force will have "significantly less insight into program costs and performance." GAO also worries that FFP contracts will not give the Air Force the flexibility it needs to change launch schedules, noting that "satellite delays have historically been an issue..."
Added to that, the future of the competitive launch services industry is uncertain and "the ability of the domestic industry to sustain two or more providers in the long-term, while desirable, is unclear."
The recommendation, therefore, is to move slowly and not make commitments to future acquisition rounds until the Air Force has gained experience with the first one, now underway. The Air Force should "use an incremental approach to the next acquisition strategy until data is available to make an informed decision."
In a letter included as an appendix to the GAO report, DOD concurred: "The Air Force is implementing a phased approach to its EELV efforts, to include awarding launch services on a case by case basis."
GAO did the study in response to a congressional requirement in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act.