Orbital revises plans after failed rocket launch

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli
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In the failed Oct. 28 launch, the rocket exploded
seconds after blastoff. AP Photo/NASA, Joel Kowsky

Despite a failed rocket launch in late October, Orbital Sciences says it is moving forward with plans to fulfill its $1.9 billion contract with NASA to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station.

Dulles-based Orbital makes rockets and space systems for commercial and government clients. The company also provides satellite subsystems and space-related services to U.S. government agencies and laboratories.

On Oct. 28, it tried to launch an Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island. Seconds after blastoff, the rocket exploded into a fireball. The mission was supposed to deliver noncritical supplies to the space station.

“As  previously reported, we are very fortunate that no one was injured and that the Wallops Island launch complex sustained relatively limited damage,” Orbital President and CEO David Thompson said during a conference call held in early November.

Thompson said he does not expect the explosion to have a significant financial impact on the company in 2015 or beyond. The company also anticipates repairs to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch complex at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to go quickly.

A proposed $5 billion merger between Orbital and Arlington-based Alliant Techsystems’ (ATK) aerospace and defense units also is moving forward. The transaction is expected to close in February and is subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory and stockholder approvals.

Marco A. Cáceres, senior space analyst and director of space studies for Fairfax-based consulting firm the Teal Group, believes the merger is a good idea.

“I think Orbital has the rocket, and they’re a prime contractor, and ATK has the motor, so it’s a nice fit,” Caceres says. “If both of those companies want to be able to compete against companies like SpaceX, which are coming in with very, very low launch prices and much more of a cost-effective structure … they’re going to have to merge and become more vertically integrated like SpaceX because that’s the only way to bring costs down.”

The explosion also does not appear to have hampered Orbital’s relationship with NASA. In November, NASA awarded Orbital a contract valued at $185 million to operate the space agency’s Science Balloon Operations program.

Although an investigation of the explosion is still underway, Orbital said preliminary results point to a failure in one of the rocket’s engines. Because of this, Orbital says, it likely will stop using the AJ26 engines in its rockets. Orbital bought the 40-year-old refurbished Russian engines from California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne. 

The company plans to deliver the remaining cargo to the space station by the end of 2016, a target that is in line with its existing NASA contract. Instead of making five trips, it will make four while carrying heavier loads.  

Thompson also said the company will fulfill the rest of the mission by delivering cargo using another company’s rocket and its upgraded Antares rocket, which it plans to introduce in 2016 instead of 2017.  Thompson did not say which company Orbital would purchase the rockets from but said it is in talks with two launch providers in the U.S. and one in Europe.

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