Antares Accident Update: SpaceX Falcon 9, ULA Atlas V to the Rescue?

Will Cygnus be on the Manifest?  Image Credit SpaceX

One week after the loss of an Antares launch vehicle carrying a Cygnus cargo vessel bound for the International Space Station, Orbital Sciences Corporation held a conference call with investors to discuss what it has learned about the accident thus far, and its plans for going forward.

Speaking to the group, OSC Chairman and CEO David W. Thompson said that according to preliminary information based on telemetry from the vehicle, it appears the disaster was triggered by a turbo-pump failure on one of the two AJ-26 engines 15 seconds into the flight. Based on that information, and responding to a question late in the call in which he agreed with a characterization of the problem as “inherent” in the 40 year old Russian engines reworked by Aerojet-Rocketdyne, Thompson stated that his company is accelerating plans already in place to introduce an new version of Antares with different first stage propulsion and that it will “probably not” use the AJ-26 again. Asked to comment on whether OSC or GenCorp, the parent company of Aerojet-Rocketdyne will take a loss on the remaining stock of engines, Thompson declined to comment, but did state that OSC does not expect the Antares failure to materially effect OSC’s financial performance in coming years.

The reason for that optimism is the surprising nature of the company’s”go forward plan” outlined in the press release below.  In addition to accelerating the introduction of a new and more powerful Antares with a likely first flight in 2016, OSC will also be purchasing at least two commercial launches for Cygnus from other providers. Although he would not say who those providers might be, Thompson did state that his company is talking to two U.S. providers, presumably SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, as well as one European provider, presumably Arianespace. When asked if Cygnus could fit into the lower payload position of the heavy lift Ariane V, he pointed out that while it could physically fit, the European workhorse booster generally flies to the wrong orbit, particularly when carrying two satellites. In other words, the most likely candidate would be the commercial Soyuz, although that possibility raises the interesting question as to whether it would launch from the equatorial location of French Guiana, or perhaps from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a site which has seen dozens of launches to ISS.

It is the U.S. options for hosting a Cygnus however, which are the most intriguing. Based on its much lower pricing, the SpaceX Falcon 9 V1.1 would appear to be the obvious candidate, a conclusion backed by the fact that Thompson seemed nonplussed regarding the financial implications of outsourcing the entire launch vehicle.  On the other hand, while the other obvious candidate, the ULA Atlas V is a much more expensive launch vehicle, there is the distinct possibility that the “suspended” lawsuit between OSC and ULA regarding access to the Russian built RD-180 engine could be a hidden factor in the decision. In either event, it may be a tough pill to swallow; OSC Vice-President Frank Culbertson regularly goes to great lengths to avoid even saying the word “SpaceX,” while OSC can thank ULA in part for its dependence on Apollo era Russian engines in the first place.

Bitter though it may be, the availability of alternate, more powerful launch vehicles is also allowing OSC to make good use of planned upgrades to the Cygnus spacecraft itself, increasing planned cargo capacity from 2,700 kg with the first generation Antares, to 3,300 kg with a commercial booster. As a result, according to Thompson, OSC can anticipate reducing the number of remaining flights from 5 to 4, while still meeting its contractually obligated total mass requirements stipulated in the CRS-1 contract.

One thing which did not come out of today’s conference call, was any further word on just what option OSC will be pursuing for its new first stage. Citing a desire to keep quiet until the bids are placed for the NASA’s CRS-2 delivery contracts which will serve ISS through 2020, Thompson, when asked if he could announce the decision said “I can, but I won’t.” One other newsworthy item coming from the event regarded the damage to Pad OA at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) which was described as likley to cost “a small fraction” of the funds which were required to build the structure in the first place.  Although vague, the statement tends to fall in line with preliminary NASA observations that the damage is not as bad as initially suspected.

Today’s OSC press release is below:

Orbital Announces Go-Forward Plan for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services Program and the Company’s Antares Launch Vehicle

— Revised Approach Will Maintain Required ISS Cargo Deliveries in 2015 and 2016 —

— Accelerated Propulsion System Upgrade of Antares to be Implemented at Wallops —
(Dulles, VA 5 November 2014) – Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB), one of the world’s leading space technology companies, today announced comprehensive plans to fulfill its contract commitments under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program as well as to accelerate an upgrade of the Antares medium-class launcher’s main propulsion system. Under the new approach and in line with Orbital’s existing CRS contract, all remaining cargo will be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2016. There will be no cost increase to NASA and only minor adjustments will be needed to the cargo manifest in the near term.

Orbital’s Antares launch failure Accident Investigation Board (AIB) is making good progress in determining the primary cause of last week’s failure. A preliminary review of telemetry and video data has been conducted and substantial debris from the Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload has been collected and examined. While the work of the AIB continues, preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines. As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued.

To maintain the CRS program’s critical ISS supply line, Orbital plans an early introduction of its previously selected Antares propulsion system upgrade in 2016. This will be preceded by one or two non-Antares launches of the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS in 2015-2016, employing the spacecraft’s compatibility with various launch vehicles and its flexibility to accommodate heavier cargo loads as launcher capacity permits. In addition, the company expects repairs to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch complex at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to be undertaken quickly, allowing launch operations to continue at Wallops Island with the upgraded Antares beginning in 2016.

“Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station. While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

“Exact financial impacts to Orbital will depend on which of several specific options for near-term launches is selected, but they are not expected to be material on an annual basis in 2015. In all cases, no significant adverse effects are projected in 2016 or future years, in part because the cost of the Antares propulsion system upgrade was already part of our internal investment plan during that time,” he added.

“We very much appreciate the tremendous support Orbital has received from NASA and Virginia’s MARS commercial spaceport team over the last seven years on our Antares rocket and CRS cargo programs. We look forward to working closely with them to quickly recover from last week’s setback,” Thompson concluded.

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