Friday, September 25, 2015

Articles of Interest

A September 21 test fire of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 booster in McGregor, Texas. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

I've been sick all week with the latest virus to merrily infect us in the Space Coast, so rather than writing separate articles I'll lump these various stories into one post.

Aerojet Rocketdyne had a bad week.

The Boeing Company rejected AR's $2 billion to acquire United Launch Alliance, which Boeing jointly owns with Lockheed Martin. According to the Reuters article, a Boeing spokesperson said, “The unsolicited proposal for ULA is not something we seriously entertained.”

But Reuters reports that AR is undeterred, contemplating a higher second offer for ULA.

United Launch Alliance flies the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The United States government is ULA's primary customer, although on October 2 ULA is scheduled to launch a communications satellite for the Mexican government. It will be the first non-U.S. government launch for ULA since 2009.

A September 24 Fortune article suggests that the big winner is Blue Origin. The NewSpace startup has a partnership with ULA to develop methane-fueled engines for the proposed ULA Vulcan booster. Journalist Clay Dillow suggests that AR is so driven to acquire ULA because, without the OldSpace company, AR essentially has no other launch customers.

That point was emphasized when it was reported September 24 that AR agreed to pay $50 million to Orbital ATK to settle a claim filed after Orbital's Antares rocket exploded seconds after launch at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia last October 28. AR sold Orbital refurbished Russian engines built in the 1970s for a cancelled Soviet-era lunar program.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue an official ruling on the accident's cause. According to the Sacramento Business Journal, “the two companies essentially agreed to disagree over what caused the October accident.”

The agreement ends the deal Aerojet had to send liquid propulsion rocket engines to Orbital for that company's Antares program and says the Rancho Cordova company must deliver the payment before month's end. As part of the agreement, Orbital will give back title to Aerojet for 10 engines scheduled for delivery under the previous deal.

I can't think of any other company that would go near these engines, so they'll become expensive paperweights. Check eBay soon to place your bid.

Also soon to appear on the paperweight market will be AR solid rocket boosters. The ULA Atlas V has used AR strap-on solid rocket boosters when required, but in the future the Atlas and Vulcan will use solids provided by Orbital ATK. According to a ULA press release:

“As ULA transforms the space lift industry, strong partners such as Orbital ATK are critical to reducing cost, introducing cutting-edge innovation and continuing our focus on mission success,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “We have relied for decades on Orbital ATK’s industry leading rocket motor technology, which is ideally suited to support our future rocket launch plans.”

While AR seeks new customers, the Sierra Nevada Corporation continues to seek a government contract to create a sound business case for its Dream Chaser spaceplane.

The Orlando Sentinel reported September 24 that SNC's plans to launch Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V from the Cape in November 2016 depend on the government committing to use it for commercial crew or cargo.

John Roth, vice president of business development for Sierra Nevada's Space Systems, said the company has not released any details on its potential commercial business yet.

“What everybody is waiting on is the award of the [NASA] cargo contracts. We do have a few customers that . . . might still do the missions whether we get one of the cargo contracts or not,” Roth said. “But a lot of customers would like to see us have that NASA contract.”

NASA is in the process of selecting vendors for its second round of commercial cargo contracts. Both Orbital and SpaceX, the current vendors, have suffered launch accidents in the last year.Beoing and Lockheed Martin also have submitted bids for the next round.

SNC might have more credibility if they'd step up the pace with demonstration flights. Their lone flight was a drop test in October 2013. The glide test was considered successful, but one of the struts collapsed on landing, damaging the prototype. SNC has development deals with the European Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, but seems reluctant to more aggressively invest in Dream Chaser R&D without a guaranteed contract.

That doesn't stop SpaceX founder Elon Musk, whose company earlier this week test-fired at its McGregor, Texas site an upgraded Falcon 9 booster. SpaceX developed its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy using only its own investment money. The company did receive in 2006 a contract from NASA to develop its Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft, and in September 2014 was awarded one of two contracts (Boeing was the other winner) to deliver crew to the International Space Station. SpaceX is chasing the global commercial satellite launch business neglected by ULA due to its monopolistic pricing practices over the last decade, and is investing its own money in building a commercial launch complex outside Brownsville, Texas. In January, Google and Fidelity Investments invested a combined $1 billion in SpaceX to help build a space-based Internet, and now own 10% of SpaceX.

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