Orbital announces plan for NASA’s commercial resupply program and Antares launch vehicle
Eight days after the explosion of one of its Antares rockets, Orbital Sciences Corp. announced plans to fulfill its contract commitments under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program as well as to accelerate an upgrade of the Antares medium-class launcher’s main propulsion system.
Under the new approach and in line with Orbital’s existing contract, the company said Wednesday all remaining cargo would be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2016. There will be no cost increase to NASA, and only minor adjustments will be needed to the cargo manifest in the near term.
“Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station. While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket,” David W. Thompson, Orbital’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement.
Orbital said its Antares launch failure Accident Investigation Board (AIB) has conducted a preliminary review of telemetry and video data and substantial debris from the Antares rocket and its Cygnuspayload has been collected.
While the board’s work continues, preliminary analysis points to a probable turbo pump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage-one main engines. As a result, the company said use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely would be discontinued.
To maintain the CRS program’s critical ISS supply line, Orbital plans an early introduction of its previously selected Antares propulsion system upgrade in 2016. This will be preceded by one or two non-Antares launches of the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS in 2015-2016, employing the spacecraft’s compatibility with various launch vehicles.
Orbital says its expects repairs to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch complex at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to be done quickly, allowing launch operations to continue at Wallops Island with the upgraded Antares beginning in 2016.
As for the financial impact of the rocket explosion on the company, Thompson said, “Exact financial impacts to Orbital will depend on which of several specific options for near-term launches is selected, but they are not expected to be material on an annual basis in 2015. In all cases, no significant adverse effects are projected in 2016 or future years, in part because the cost of the Antares propulsion system upgrade was already part of our internal investment plan during that time,” he added.
After last week’s fiery explosion, Orbital’s stock fell in value by nearly to 17 percent to $25.27 per share. On Wednesday morning, it was trading at $26.01 per share on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company, based in Dulles, has a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to make eight cargo deliveries to the space station using Antares and the company's Cygnus spacecraft. Before last week’s explosion, Orbital had completed two of those missions without incident.
Another company, California-based SpaceX, also has a contract to take cargo to the space station for NASA. The agency is paying SpaceX $1.6 billion to fly 12 unmanned supply missions using the firm's Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX has flown four of these missions, and all have been successful.
Orbital’s explosion was one of two last week in the private spaceflight industry. On Oct. 31, a Virgin Galactic SpaceShip, built to take paying tourists for rides into space, crashed during a test flight in California. The accident killed one of the pilots and another was seriously injured. An investigation is ongoing to determine that cause of that explosion.