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Antares RTF Now in "Spring" 2016, Two Cygnus Launches on Atlas V First

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Sep-2015
Updated: 02-Sep-2015 08:25 PM

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.


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