Orbital Sciences [ORB] will not stop work on its Cygnus space capsule that contains the cargo delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) following Tuesday’s launch failure that lost both a Cygnus space capsule and Antares launch vehicle.
Company CEO David Thompson said Wednesday work on Cygnus will continue “apace” and will generate incremental revenue. He added where contractual milestones with NASA are tied to Cygnus related items, those milestones should still be accomplished. Thompson, speaking to investors on a conference call, said Cygnus is the larger part of the company’s Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver cargo and supplies to ISS. Total contract value is about $1.9 billion.
Orbital’s third CRS trip to ISS went wrong when the Antares rocket suffered “catastrophic failure” about 15 seconds into launch, Thompson said, at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia. There were no injuries and Thompson said preliminary inspections Wednesday morning showed the launch pad complex was “spared from any major damage.” The status of the launch pad at Wallops is critical as the site is the only location Antares can launch. Thompson did not say Wednesday how long he thought Wallops would be out of commission.
An accident investigation board (AIB) including Orbital, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), located at Wallops, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), will carry out the failure review and recommend corrective actions, Thompson said. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokeswoman Laura Brown said Wednesday the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (CST) retains overall responsibility for the investigation. She said CST has given Orbital the authority to conduct the investigation in accordance with its approved investigation plan.
Under this framework, Brown said, the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention, NASA and the NTSB are all participating in this investigation as observers. Company Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Programs Frank Culbertson said in a Tuesday night press conference Orbital would lead the AIB.
Thompson said he expected Orbital to become “substantially smarter” about the cause of the launch failure within the coming days, not weeks, adding he thought the problem would be “likely” found within a week “or so.” Thompson hedged that it would take longer to identify the root cause.
Thompson also said the company is considering accelerating the introduction of a second-generation propulsion system into its Antares launch vehicle. Thompson said under the company’s original plan, Orbital was about two years away from conducting the first launch of Antares with a new engine. Thompson said Orbital would determine the future of Antares in November.
Though Thompson said Orbital is looking at speeding up implementation of a new engine, he warned the company didn’t know how much of that two-year period could be compressed. Thompson also said the company has “not decided” to stop work on Antares, which was scheduled for another launch in April from Wallops. He did, though, say there would be some delay in the next Antares launch, with a best case estimate of three months, but Thompson said he hoped it would not be more than one year.
Orbital in mid-2013 sued United Launch Alliance (ULA) over access to the Russian-made liquid first stage booster called RD-180 (Defense Daily; June 24, 2013), Culbertson said Orbital was considering alternatives to the RD-180 if the lawsuit failed (Defense Daily; Sept. 6, 2013). Orbital in March dropped its lawsuit against ULA and domestic RD-180 distributor RD AMROSS (Defense Daily, March 20). ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA]. RD AMROSS is a joint venture of RD-180 manufacturer NPO Energomash and Pratt & Whitney of United Technologies Corp. [UTX]
Orbital has been relying on the AJ-26 engine provided by GenCorp’s [GY] Aerojet Rocketdyne for Antares launches. The AJ-26 is a refurbished version of the NK-33 engine developed by Russian manufacturer Kuznetsov in the late ’60s and early ’70s for the Soviet Union’s N-1 lunar rocket. As typical for Antares, two AJ-26s were used as the first stage booster in Tuesday’s launch failure. Orbital said in its lawsuit it had enough AJ-26s to last through 2016. Culbertson said Tuesday night in a press conference the company didn’t know yet if the engine was the cause of the launch failure.
Orbital did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment. Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said Wednesday in a statement she remained supportive of Wallops and NASA’s Commercial Cargo, or CRS, mission. Mikulski is also head of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee that handles NASA’s budget.