Hurricane Sandy came and went in late 2012, as did many of the start up issues at Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), elevating the prospects that Orbital Sciences Corp. will complete its NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program milestones in the New Year and begin lucrative cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.
A successful demonstration flight of Orbital’s two stage Antares rocket from MARS including an inaugural rendezvous of its Cygnus cargo craft with the six-person orbiting science laboratory targeted for April would bring the Dulles, Va., based company’s abbreviated five-year development effort under the COTS initiative to a successful close.
It also would trigger the start of a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) agreement awarded to Orbital by NASA in late 2008. Orbital would join SpaceX to provide the 15-nation station program with the second U.S. re-supply source envisioned by NASA for the post-space shuttle era when COTS program planning began in 2005.
“We would certainly expect, if we go in April with the demo mission, to carry out at least one CRS mission in 2013, but that is really driven by NASA’s needs and paced by NASA,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski says. “Orbital could certainly do two.”
As 2012 came to a close, Orbital’s inventory included a pair of the Antares boosters. A third pressurized Cygnus, built by Thales Alenia of Italy and based on the flight proven Multi-purpose Logistics Module used by the shuttle to re-supply the station, was about to join the inventory as well.
Orbital also has benefitted from the “lessons learned” provided by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX. NASA’s other COTS partner carried out its first CRS mission, under a $1.6 billion NASA contract, in October 2012, five months after its successful rendezvous demonstration mission.
“We talked about the experiences SpaceX was having,” said Bruce Manners, the NASA COTS executive assigned to Orbital. “We gave them some direct lessons learned from the first mission with SpaceX that reinforced some of the things we were already doing, like simulations with the operations team. We’ve worked quite closely.”
Both companies have experienced significant development delays, though there are crucial differences in the approaches taken by privately owned SpaceX and publicly traded Orbital. SpaceX chose the 60-year-old Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., as its launch site. Orbital chose MARS, which is newer and closer to its corporate home.
Hurricane Sandy’s late October fury bypassed Florida and took aim at the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, interrupting efforts by Orbital to break in a new commercial launch complex, overseen by the state of Virginia and located on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
As 2012 ended, Orbital was carrying out a series of countdown dress rehearsals in which fuel was pumped to an Antares first stage. The two-engine first stage, positioned on its MARS launch pad on Oct. 1. was to undergo an independent 29-sec. hot fire test in January.
The workload seemed likely to push a COTS required orbital test flight of the Antares with a Cygnus mass simulator into February 2013, Beneski said. The test flight does not involve a space station rendezvous.
SpaceX carried out a similar test of its Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon mass simulator in December 2010, 18 months later than initially planned. Initially, Orbital envisioned a March 2011 test flight.
Orbital came to the COTS initiative in February 2008, replacing Rocketplane Kistler, which had missed a series of early technical and financial milestones. Like Rocketplane Kistler, SpaceX was a winner in an earlier COTS competition in August 2006.
Orbital and SpaceX were eligible for $396 million and $288 million, respectively, in NASA funding as they completed discrete development milestones. In addition, each was eligible for a $10 million fee for the delivery of cargo to the station on its final COTS rendezvous demonstration.
Cygnus will likely deliver about 1,000 lb. of supplies on its first station flight. The capsule is designed to haul up to 4,400 lb. of supplies. Orbital plans to introduce an extended version of Cygnus that can carry nearly 6,000 lb. after its series of eight commercial re-supply missions get underway.
Unlike Orbital, SpaceX’s Dragon was developed to bring station research equipment and hardware in need of refurbishment back to Earth.
Whenever the first unpiloted Cygnus supply craft approaches the space station, Orbital can be assured that two or more astronauts aboard have been trained for the delicate task of tracking, capturing and berthing the capsule with the station’s 58-ft.-long Canadian robot arm.
“The date is still in flux, and they are trying to make sure they do it right,” said Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is scheduled to be in command of the station in April and a likely participant in the capture activities. NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, the station’s current commander, as well as early 2013 NASA crew members Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy will be prepared as well.