Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shotgun Wedding

An artist's concept of the ATK Liberty rolling out to Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39B. Original image source: ATK.

In a deal no one saw coming, Orbital Science and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) announced their intent to merge their defense and aerospace operations.

Click here to read the Orbital ATK merger presentation. (PDF file)

Click here to read the Orbital press release.

Click here to read the ATK press release.

Both companies have operations and interests far beyond those that usually concern the space advocacy audience, but the great thing about blogging is that we're free to speculate without any meaningful insight, so here goes ...

This would seem to explain why Orbital dropped its ULA antitrust lawsuit a month ago. Orbital's Antares rocket that launches the Cygnus commercial cargo ship to the International Space Station uses 1970s Soviet-era AJ-26 engines bought on the surplus market. Orbital had sought to buy NPO Energomash RD-180 engines currently used by Lockheed Martin's Atlas V, but ULA claimed it held sole rights to its use in the United States.

When it dropped the lawsuit, Orbital issued this statement:

“The parties will now undertake to negotiate a business resolution for Orbital’s access to the RD-180 rocket engine, subject to all necessary approvals from the U.S. and Russian governments. If a mutually agreeable resolution is not reached, Orbital will have the option to refile its lawsuit.”

Mergers don't happen overnight, so it's reasonable to assume that Orbital's talks with ATK had reached the point where a business decision was made to rely upon ATK motors instead of RD-180s.

Besides, with the current tensions over the Ukraine crisis, ULA's use of Russian engines has made them a political punching bag. SpaceX founder Elon Musk pounded on ULA CEO Michael Gass during their March Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that SpaceX Merlin engines were made in the United States, unlike the Atlas V RD-180s.

So Orbital walking away from the RD-180 made good political sense as well as business sense.

Now we wait to see if the new Orbital ATK will phase out Antares in favor of a solid-fueled substitute, perhaps even some version of the ill-fated ATK Liberty that briefly attempted to compete for a NASA commercial crew contract. The Liberty web site has posted no new news since July 2012. In September 2012, ATK President and CEO Mark DeYoung said the company was “moving on” after it was eliminated from the commercial crew competition.

In January 2013, a Space.com article indicated that ATK would not proceed with Liberty unless it received an infusion of government money — a typical attitude for an OldSpace company. Space.com cited this quote from ATK Liberty program manager Kent Rominger:

"[There is] no way on internal funding we can finish the Liberty module, interfaces, design. We probably need on the order of $300 million to get the launcher to [critical design review]. And we're not investing that kind of money," he was reported as saying.

The proposed ATK composite crew vehicle. Original image source: ATK.

Liberty also featured a composite crew module the company had delivered to NASA in 2009 as a test vehicle.

Although Liberty's first stage would have been a solid-fueled motor based on Shuttle boosters and the cancelled Ares I, the upper stage would have been a liquid-fueled Ariane 5 core. Orbital's Pegasus rocket used ATK solid fuel motors, and a Pegasus derivative will be the air launch vehicle on the Stratolaunch system later in the decade.

So there's plenty or prior collaboration between ATK and Orbital to suggest launching Cygnus atop some sort of Liberty knockoff is at least plausible.

The Antares currently launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, Virginia. MARS is not equipped, so far as I know, to integrate solid-fueled systems.

But Kennedy Space Center just completed a 30-year run with the Space Shuttle which used ATK solid fueled motors, and most of those support facilities still exist. ATK's original Liberty concept showed the vehicle rolling out from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Pad 39B, which will be used for the Space Launch System but notionally is a multi-user “clean pad” that could support other launch systems.

Absent a customer, ATK didn't have a business case for Liberty. But Orbital has a customer for Cygnus, and no doubt plans to fly it to the new Bigelow habitats later in the decade.

Could an undead Liberty rocket launching a Cygnus cargo vehicle make a business case for Orbital ATK to launch from Kennedy Space Center?

They would still need a mobile launcher, probably modifying one of the three originals that go back to the mid-1960s, and they would have to use one of the two original transporter-crawlers that were recently overhauled after a half-century of service.

Could that compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9 and its Dragon cargo ship?

It's hard to believe that it could, although NASA would be happy to find anyone willing to use these vacated facilities and equipment. NASA leased Pad 39A to SpaceX for virtually nothing, so it could write off the $1 million in annual maintenance costs.

Most likely, all of this speculation is bupkis, but 24 hours ago we couldn't speculate.

The commercial launch business just got a lot more interesting.

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