|By Frank Morring, Jr.|
|WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Va. — Orbital Sciences Corp. is on track — with “a limited amount of slack” — to fly its new Taurus II launch vehicle in September on a risk-reduction mission.
The first flight main stage is on a ship en route from the KB Yuzhnoye factory in Ukraine to the new Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) here, where it will be mated with its ATK Castor 30A upper stage and Cygnus cargo capsule.
“The risk-reduction flight will be September, five-and-a-half or six months from now, depending on how things go,” said David W. Thompson, chairman and CEO of the Dulles, Va.-based space-hardware company, during the HIF dedication ceremony March 22. “And that will be followed about three months later by the COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation System] demonstration mission in mid-December.”
The Cygnus pressurized cargo module that will carry supplies on the Taurus II to the International Space Station (ISS) is essentially complete at the Thales Alenia Space factory in Turin, Italy, and the Cygnus service module is taking shape at Orbital’s satellite fabrication facility in Dulles.
“There are plenty of things to work on; no major areas of concern now,” Thompson says of the Cygnus. “Several areas still require a lot of work, but the schedule on that looks pretty good right now. We have a limited amount of slack against all of those dates.”
About 50 Ukrainian technicians are working full-time in the HIF to prepare the first production unit of the Taurus II main stage for pathfinder operations at the new launch pad, including a hold-down test of the full vehicle this summer. The Taurus II pad itself — one of two new pads for orbital missions operated here by the state of Virginia’s Commercial Space Flight Authority as the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) — is essentially complete.
The concrete pad, flame trench and vehicle-delivery ramp have been finished, the propellant and inert gas tankage is in place, and the lightning towers and a 296-ft., 300,000-gal. water tower have been erected. Workers are installing the sound-suppression system that will use that water, the plumbing for fueling the rocket after it has been erected on the pad, and the electrical gear needed to control a launch.
Ground-facility managers from Orbital and MARS are getting help in building the new pad from NASA experts normally based at Kennedy and Stennis space centers, Langley Research Center, and Marshall and Goddard space flight centers, as well as the NASA range experts here who are making the transition from sounding rocket launches to orbital missions.
“Since this is one of the first brand-new launch pads to be developed in quite a number of years, we wanted to be sure that we were benefitting from the experience that existed in NASA with respect to the whole ground-processing and pre-launch flow and the necessary equipment at the pad,” Thompson says.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says Kennedy Space Center specialists are helping to develop the vehicle-fueling system, while Langley experts are working on the high-pressure pad systems. Stennis and Marshall will help with the hold-down test, which will see the rocket’s two Aerojet AJ-26 liquid oxygen/kerosene engines firing for about 30 sec.
“It’s a first time for them, so we’re sending in people who’ve done this time and time again,” Bolden says. “I think we’re going to be okay.”