The twin failures of both the Orbital Sciences Antares and SpaceX Falcon launch vehicles have made for a challenging 10 months for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, a period further complicated by the loss of a Russian Progress cargo ship between the two U.S. accidents.
At the same time, the program’s core philosophy of supporting a two vendor solution has been validated, even as the two primary launch vehicles have been sidelined. It did not take long after the Antares failure last October for Orbital Sciences, now Orbital ATK, to announce that it would be securing an alternate launch vehicle for the Cygnus cargo vessel in order to meet its obligations to NASA. And as it turned out, the selection of at least one United Launch Alliance Atlas V, purchased through Lockheed Martin Launch Services, turned out to be a fortuitous decision. The Cygnus vessel for what is now termed the OA-4 mission arrived at Cape Canaveral earlier this week, with a launch expected to take place in December. With the increased lifting power supplied by the Atlas, Orbital will even take advantage of the opportunity to max out the cargo ship’s capacity at 3,500 kg.
Today, Orbital ATK formally confirmed in a press release that it will be ordering at least one more Atlas V, and possibly two, as it seeks to return a re-powered Antares to flight in 2016. That the company has been able to both order an entirely new engine for its booster, as well as switch boosters and launch sites for its Cygnus cargo vessels on such short notice, and all while negotiating a major corporate merger is a rather remarkable thing. It seems unlikely that even Donald Trump could have done much better, although the terms “fabulous” and “amazing” would surely freshen the typically staid press release, one which after all might also include a referral to Congress as “idiots.”
Having departed for a (none to) hard-earned six week break, some members of Congress representing space states might want to consider the magnitude of what Orbital ATK is achieving, as well as why it is possible in the first place, as they make decisions questioning which both threaten the timing and the rationale for NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Recent experience strongly suggests that NASA, and not Congress, is in the right place on this issue.
Ironically, or perhaps for that very reason, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that NASA will be taking at least several more months to reach a decision regarding winners and losers in the next phase of the Commercial Resupply Program, CRS-2. The winners, which could be more than two companies, were originaly due to be announced in April, but that date slipped to June, then September, and now will not come out to at least December. The reason cited, as before, is to allow more time to evaluate proposals.