But, the company is not waiting for the outcome of this review to move forward. Officials are already reviewing alternatives, though the only viable option is currently the RD-180, Hamel says. Orbital has also looked at the RD-181, RD-191 and RD-193. These are either still in development, or not yet approved for export. The RD-191 is the propulsion system being developed for Russia's Angara rocket.
Meanwhile, worried about losing its exclusive business with Antares, Aerojet Rocketdyne's president, William Boley, is offering to restart NK-33 production with Kuztnetsov. Boley says in order to start deliveries as soon as 2016, when NASA's CRS-2 contract moves forward, he would need to have a deal with Orbital by this fall.
The total production rate depends on the demand for Antares, but Boley says it is likely to be at least 4-6 engines annually. The strategy is to use the new engines for Antares as quickly as possible, and draw from the remaining 23 NK-33 engines requiring overhaul as a “buffer” if problems arise in restarting the production process, says Boley.
Hamel says that unlike upstart Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Orbital does not intend to compete against ULA in the large-payload market. Antares is designed to reopen a market once served by the workhorse Boeing Delta II, which was used to launch GPS and defense weather satellites in the 1990s.
If successful, Antares could impact more than just the business of other launch providers by opening the door for satellite manufacturers to take advantage of new technologies to build smaller, but equally or more capable spacecraft, Hamel says. Such a shift could also threaten traditional defense and satellite manufacturing by large primes, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who sized their spacecraft to utilize as much of the available volume and thrust of these rockets to maximize their return on investment in launch costs.