Thursday, July 5, 2012


The X-37B OTV-1 after landing at Vanderberg Air Force Base on December 3, 2010. Original image source: U.S. Air Force.

Last November, Florida Today reported that NASA had agreed through Space Florida to lease Orbiter Processing Facility 1 to an unnamed tenant.

NASA plans to move out of a second shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center by next summer so an undisclosed commercial user can move in.

The program readying retired shuttle orbiters for museum display has agreed to vacate Orbiter Processing Facility-1 by Aug. 1, about six months ahead of schedule, said Candrea Thomas, KSC spokeswoman.

The hangar is located across the street from one where The Boeing Co. recently announced it would locate manufacturing and assembly of a capsule for commercial astronauts flights, work that could create 550 jobs by 2015.

Since then, no one has gone on record as to who the tenant will be.

The rumor mill consensus remains that it will be the U.S. Air Force X-37B unmanned spacecraft. The X-37B has launched twice from Cape Canveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V at Launch Complex 41, and landed both times at Vandenberg AFB. The USAF has two X-37Bs; each has flown once.

It's unclear, though, why the USAF would store the X-37B in OPF-1. Sure, the hangar was built to service an orbital spaceplane — the Space Shuttle orbiter. But would the Air Force want to expose the X-37B to public view at Kennedy Space Center, alongside a road frequented by NASA employees and contractors and by tourists on bus tours? The X-37B would have to be towed along Saturn Causeway to the Cape Road so it could be stacked atop the Atlas V on LC-41. It would seem to make more sense to keep it at the secure CCAFS.

If it's not the X-37B, then who is it?

An artist's concept of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser atop the Atlas V. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

I speculated in that November post that it might be the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, an orbital spaceplane that's one of the entrants in NASA's commercial crew competition. NASA issued a press release in July 2011 announcing that it had entered into an agreement with SNC "to offer technical capabilities from the center's uniquely skilled work force."

A July 2, 2012 Aviation Week article about Dream Chaser had this passage near the end:

Operational flights will originate at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., where the company has selected a surplus facility at the Kennedy Space Center for vehicle processing. Normally it will return to the shuttle landing strip on KSC, although Sirangelo says it can land elsewhere and return to Florida as airfreight.

The "surplus facility" wasn't named, but once the orbiters depart for museums the OPFs are most definitely a "surplus facility."

I'm going to add another possible candidate to the mix.

The ATK/Astrium Liberty.

Up until recently, I don't think many observers took Liberty seriously.

The ATK/Astrium partnership was announced in February 2011, shortly after Congress voted to accept the Obama administration's proposal to cancel the Constellation program. The Ares I vehicle that was part of Constellation was going to have a first stage based on the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Liberty uses the same booster technology, but instead of the Boeing second stage for Constellation the Liberty would use the core stage of an Ariane V. Many observers assumed this was a desperate attempt by ATK to perpetuate its SRB technology.

But ATK persisted.

In September 2011, NASA and ATK entered into an unfunded Space Act agreement. This basically meant that NASA would advise ATK on Liberty design but the vehicle would not be eligible for any commercial crew awards.

On May 9, ATK announced a deal to use a composite crew module designed by Lockheed Martin that had been rejected years ago by NASA in favor of the Orion capsule now part of the Space Launch System.

An artist's concept of the Liberty composite capsule arriving at the International Space Station with a cargo module. Image source: ATK.

And on July 3, ATK announced that it would use a version of NASA's Multi-Purpose Logistics Module to provide a cargo delivery system to the ISS:

ATK (NYSE: ATK), the company leading development of the Liberty commercial spacecraft, is pleased to announce an expanded crew and cargo capability. The extended cargo configuration will allow the Liberty spacecraft to take full advantage of the launch vehicle lift capacity to transport a pressurized pod (the Liberty Logistics Module or LLM) along with the composite crew module. Based on NASA's 15-foot diameter Multi-Purpose Logistic Module design, the LLM will include a common berthing mechanism and will be capable of transporting up to 5,100 pounds of pressurized cargo. With that capability, the LLM could be used to transport four full-size science racks to the International Space Station – along with a team of scientists to perform the associated science.

ATK has aggressively developed a complete commercial delivery system, at least on paper.

The only unannounced element is ... Where would all this be processed at Kennedy Space Center?

An artist's concept of Liberty rolling out to LC-39B. Original image source: ATK.

Original artist concepts of Liberty showed it being transported on the old Ares I mobile launcher to KSC's Launch Complex 39B. That suggests it would be assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building.

What's next to the VAB? Orbiter Processing Facility 1.

The Ares mobile launcher will be modified for Space Launch System, so it won't be available for Liberty. In a recent online chat on Twitter, an ATK representative wrote that ATK might take one of the three existing mobile launch platforms and place a tower on it for Liberty. Those mobile launchers are stored in the VAB or outside near the transporter-crawlers.

So if ATK and its partners intend to offer NASA a turnkey system, it makes sense they would lease one of the OPFs next to the VAB.

Commercial crew competitors submitted their proposals to NASA on March 23, in a new round known as Commercical Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). NASA has not disclosed the participants, much less their bids. According to TPM, a NASA spokesperson said, "The program is currently in a blackout period and we cannot discuss who has applied."

NASA is expected to announce the CCiCap winners later this month. Administrator Charlie Bolden traded letters in June with House Appropriations science subcommittee chair Frank Wolf agreeing that NASA would give two full awards and one half-award. reports that "some NASA sources claim Liberty is actually becoming a favorite option of some high ranking Agency managers." The article notes:

Liberty is the only commercial vehicle that will launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – a major plus point, per NASA’s intentions of converting the Florida launch site into an active 21st Century spaceport, launching not just the Space Launch System (SLS), but also commercial vehicles from its “clean pad” at 39B, before potentially including 39A – currently a mothballed “Shuttle Pad”.

My main skepticism with Liberty is that it would be the only crewed vehicle in history with a solid-fueled first stage. All crewed vehicles have used liquid fuel so they can be lit and tested before launch. With the Space Shuttle, the three main engines were fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. They were lit 6.6 seconds before launch, and could be cut off if a problem was detected — which happened five times during the Shuttle program.

With a solid-propellant first stage, once it's lit there's no way to turn it off, nor can it be throttled. That's why all three nations that have launched crews have always used liquid-fueled first stages. The Shuttle's SRBs were lit at T-0 and burned for about two minutes before separating from the external tank.

This will be a very historic month, as NASA will announce who will manufacture the nation's next crew ships. ATK and its partners have presented NASA with a complete system — on paper — that makes use of existing architectures. The only missing part is a KSC processing facility. Come August 1, when the new neighbors move into OPF-1, we'll find out if it's ATK.

UPDATE July 6, 2012 — Space policy analyst Jeff Foust comments on ATK's recent announcements over on the NewSpace Journal.

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