December 27, 2012
Credit: Credit: Orbital Sciences
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.