Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Orbital to Continue Cargo Shipments To International Space Station: Rocket and Satellite Specialist to Temporarily Pay for Rockets Provided by Another Company

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor

Updated Nov. 5, 2014 11:01 a.m. ET

Orbital Sciences Corp. said it would temporarily pay for rockets provided by another company to launch cargo into orbit for NASA, in the wake of last month’s launch failure of its own Antares booster.

In unveiling its contingency plans Wednesday, the Dulles, Va.,-based company said it plans to pay for up to two such launches through 2016 to fulfill its commitments to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, though Orbital Sciences didn’t disclose which rockets would be used.

The plans call for Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft to be placed atop these rockets with more cargo than previously anticipated, Chief Executive David Thompson told analysts on a conference call.

He also said the company intends to return its Antares rocket to service with new engines sometime in 2016, but didn’t indicate which engines would replace the 1970’s-vintage, Russian-built AJ26 engines suspected of causing last month’s fiery explosion shortly after liftoff. Industry sources have said Orbital Sciences is leaning toward a newer Russian-designed engine as a replacement.

Indicating the extent of the problems created by last month’s launch failure--which destroyed the rocket and some 5,000 pounds of supplies headed for the orbiting laboratory—Mr. Thompson revealed the Wallops Island, Va., launchpad used by Antares won’t be ready to resume service until early or mid-2016. Initially, NASA and Orbital Sciences officials estimated repairs might be completed more quickly.

Taken together, the steps announced by Orbital Sciences demonstrate its determination to live up to its agreement with NASA to deliver cargo along with the hit to the company’s reputation stemming from the Antares failure. Mr. Thompson said negotiations were under way with two U.S. launch providers and another from Europe for possible missions in 2015 and 2016.

Mr. Thompson said Orbital Sciences would carry out its contingency plans with “no cost increase to NASA” and without a significant impact on the company’s finances. He said Orbital Sciences is “committed to do everything possible” to meet its cargo delivery targets under an ongoing $1.9-billion contract with NASA. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX as the company is called, has a separate cargo-delivery contract with NASA.

The agency shortly plans to request bids for another round of cargo-transportation services to the international space station starting later this decade, and Orbital Sciences plans to compete for that business with the upgraded Antares rocket.

Potentially relying on a competitor’s rockets—even as a temporary gap-filler as Mr. Thompson described it—is a highly unusual strategy in an industry that prizes reliability above all. But the prospect of taking two more years to replace the main engines powering Antares seemingly left Orbital Sciences no other choice.

The company said it would accelerate earlier replacement plans that initially envisioned swapping out the AJ26 engines by 2017. After the teleconference, some Wall Street analysts said they expect Orbital to choose a solid-fuel engine provided by its prospective merger partner Alliant Techsystems Inc.

Mr. Thompson declined to discuss the impact of the latest developments on the pending merger.

Switching to a solid rocket motor would require extensive modification to the damaged Wallops Island launch complex, according to industry officials, because the facility currently is set up to handle primarily liquid-fueled rockets.

Choosing another liquid-fueled Russian main engine system for Antares might be technically simpler. Yet even if the engineering work proceeds smoothly, Orbital Sciences could face criticism from lawmakers and others for continuing to rely o Russian hardware.

Efforts to wean Antares off decades-old Russian engines comes as a joint rocket venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. --which launches satellites for the Pentagon—is looking for domestic propulsion alternatives for its family of Atlas heavy-lift rockets.

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