With Successful Antares Launch, Russian Engines Are Riding High

Antares Rising Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Atlas Antares Rising
Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After a near two year stand down while the launch pad was repaired and the rocket was retooled, Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket made a triumphant return to flight Monday evening. Liftoff from Pad OA at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport took place at 7:45 PM EDT, as the booster lofted a Cygnus cargo vehicle loaded with 5,100 lb. of supplies towards a Sunday rendezvous with the International Space Station.

After sitting out a day due to a problem with ground equipment, the new Antares 230, which is now powered by twin Russian RD-181 first stage kerosene/oxygen engines, sailed smoothly through the countdown, with only a single 5 minute hold interrupting an otherwise flawless evening.

If you happened to be playing the Orbital ATK “Nominal” drinking game during the otherwise overly dry launch broadcast, it may be a bit of a tough day for you however, as the company announcer seemingly attempted to wear the word out.

And if you were, there is no question as to what the beverage of choice should have been. Vodka, Russian of course. With yesterday’s launch, Orbital ATK became the second American aerospace company to power its first stage booster with current construction Russian main engines, the other being ULA and the Atlas V.

At the moment there are two other U.S. medium or EELV class rockets; the ULA Delta IV, powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-68 engine, and the SpaceX Falcon 9, which uses its own Merlin 1-D. The Delta series is stated to be phased out due to its high costs, while the Falcon rocket is presently in the midst of a second stand-down due to a catastrophic loss, although neither has been related to the Merlin engine.

That’s 50 percent.

With the United States still completely dependent on Russian rockets to launch American astronauts to ISS, a condition which will now stretch a full 8 years from the Shuttle’s final flight in 2011 to what looks to be a 2019 debut for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, it has been a curious and and often troubling time for America’s legacy propulsion industry, a point which was underscored last night even as the return to flight demonstrated once again the built-in flexibility of NASA’s Commercial Resupply services program.

Yes the future of U.S. propulsion is bright, more so in fact, than at any point in the space age. Blue Origin’s cryogenic BE-3, which powers the New Shepard suborbital rocket has proven to be outstanding, and there is no reason to think the LNG BE-4, which appears destined to replace the Atlas V’s RD-180 won’t do just as well. SpaceX recently fired it wildly ambitious Raptor engine for the first time. If successful, it will finally surpass the RD-180 as the undisputed technological leader of the world’s rocket engines.

Bur for the moment however, that honor belongs to Russia.

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