On Launch Day for Antares, An Opportunity for Redemption

Launch Day

Launch Day

There are any number of interesting stories surrounding today’s scheduled launch of Orbital Science Corporation’s Antares rocket,  not the least of which is the opportunity for a bit of redemption for Orbital Sciences, for first stage manufacturer Yuzhmash of the Ukraine, and perhaps most of all,  the pair of Soviet built NK-33 main engines, now updated and rebranded as the Aerojet AJ-26, which will drive it off the pad.

It all starts with Orbital Sciences, whose launch services operations  have had a tough run in recent years following two consecutive failures of the Taurus XL booster, and the bottom dropping out of the market for its air-launched Pegasus XL.   After problems with the release of the payload fairing doomed both NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory and its Glory spacecraft in 2009 and 2011 respectively,  OSC wisely changed the name of its new launch vehicle from Taurus II, to Antares.  Though it has since returned to space with both the converted ICBM Minotaur rocket, as well as the launch of NASA”s NuStar spacecraft aboard the smaller Pegasus booster, the company is understandably eager to move forward into a new era, and if today’s launch is successful, it could be the start of something big for OSC.

The same could probably be said for PA Yuzhmash, the Ukrainian company which manufactures the kerosene / oxygen first stage tank assembly for Antares. Better known for the Zenit booster, from which this stage is derived,  Yuzhmash is also looking towards a successful climb to orbit following the failure of a Sea Launch Zenit- 3SL on February 1st.  With the Sea Launch consortium struggling to secure an adequate customer base in its emergence from bankruptcy, a steady business of supplying Antares first stage assemblies to Orbital Sciences represents a welcome opportunity.

Finally, there is the long, strange tale of the two NK-33 engines which will power the first stage. Originally designed for the failed Soviet N-1 moon rocket, and then secreted away in storage for decades following an order for their destruction, these engines, now reworked by Aerojet, have waited a long time for an opportunity to show what they can do.  Once proposed as the powerplant for the Martin Marietta “Black Colt” sRLV study by Robert Zubrin in  1994, the engine was subsequently selected for the Kistler Aerospace K-1 reusable launch vehicle.   When the K-1 was rolled into Rocketplane-Kistler and selected, along with SpaceX,  as one of two original winners of the COTS program in 2006, it seemed, at least for a little while, that its moment had arrived.   After NASA dismissed RpK from the COTS program for failure to meet is financial milestones, the selection of Orbital Sciences as the new industry parter, finally set in motion the chain of events which have placed long-suffering engine on the launch pad and ready to earn its place in space history. Oddly enough, after such a strange saga in which the very promising high pressure, staged combustion and potentially reusable engine has yet to see a successful orbital launch,  the NK-33 may soon be used on two boosters,  as Russia is currently conducting ground tests of one of the engines to be used on a new Soyuz Lite.

Launch from the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Flight Facility is scheduled today for a 3 hour window beginning at 5:00 PM Eastern, and will be covered on NASA TV, with coverage beginning at 4:00 PM.  Weather is a concern, with a 45% chance of favorable weather expected.

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2 Comments on "On Launch Day for Antares, An Opportunity for Redemption"

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  1. zorik says:

    There is no such country THE Ukraine. Its simply Ukraine.

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