Orbital Sciences Contracts ULA’s Atlas-V for Cygnus CRS Flights Until Upgraded Antares is Ready

United Launch Alliance (ULA) will employ their proven Atlas-V 401 rocket to fly at least one, and possibly two, Cygnus ISS resupply flights for Orbital Sciences Corporation in late 2015 / early 2016. In the meantime, Orbital is moving forward quickly to develop a new propulsion system for their Antares rocket, with those flights expected to begin again later in 2016. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) will employ their proven Atlas-V 401 rocket to fly at least one, and possibly two, Cygnus ISS resupply flights for Orbital Sciences Corporation in late 2015 / early 2016. In the meantime, Orbital is moving forward quickly to develop a new propulsion system for their Antares rocket, with those flights expected to begin again later in 2016. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

When Orbital Sciences Corporation launched their Cygnus Orb-3 ISS resupply mission for NASA, nobody would have thought the flight would end in a spectacular explosion, but that’s exactly what happened, and in the time since Orbital has dusted the dirt off their shoes and implemented a contingency plan to overcome the setback quickly in order to fulfill their $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Signed in December 2008, the agreement requires the Dulles, Va.-based company to stage eight dedicated Cygnus flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016 to deliver a total of 44,000 pounds of payloads and other items for NASA (this will now be accomplished in seven flights instead—keep reading).

The loss of Orb-3 is blamed on a turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines the Antares employed, which will keep Orbital’s rocket grounded until a new engine is implemented, but that doesn’t mean Orbital is not still obligated to fulfill their contract with NASA. With that said, this week the company announced a new agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to employ their proven Atlas-V 401 rocket to launch Cygnus on Orb-4 in 2015 and, if needed, Orb-5 in 2016 while Orbital develops a new main propulsion system for their Antares rocket, which is expected to fly again starting in the first quarter of 2016.

Antares exploding just seconds after liftoff with the Orb-3 mission for NASA. Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / Zero-G News
Antares exploding just seconds after liftoff with the Orb-3 mission for NASA. Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / Zero-G News / AmericaSpace

“Orbital is pleased to partner with ULA for these important cargo missions to the ISS,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital executive vice president and general manager of its Advanced Programs Group. “ULA’s ability to integrate and launch missions on relatively short notice demonstrates ULA’s manifest flexibility and responsiveness to customer launch needs.”

Orbital’s “go-forward” plan to get back on track with their NASA CRS commitment will rely on ULA launching Cygnus atop their Atlas-V 401 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex-41 in Florida. The current plan calls for ULA to fly Cygnus Orb-4 in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second Atlas-V launch (Orb-5) in early 2016 if Orbital’s new Antares is not ready.

“We could not be more honored that Orbital selected ULA to launch its Cygnus spacecraft,” added Jim Sponnick, vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs for ULA. “This mission was awarded in a highly competitive environment, and we look forward to continuing ULA’s long history of providing reliable, cost-effective launch services for customers.”

ULA’s Atlas-V rockets are arguably the most reliable operational launch vehicles in active service today. To date, they have flown a total of 50 missions between August 2002 and October 2014, with 49 full successes and only one partial failure. The Atlas-V 401 configuration, which flies without solid boosters, can deliver up to 21,600 pounds (9,800 kg) to low-Earth orbit (LEO), and when compared to Orbital’s Antares rocket the Atlas 401’s greater lift capacity (propulsive yield of 860,000 pounds) will allow Cygnus to carry nearly 35 percent more cargo to the ISS than previously planned for CRS missions in 2015.

ULA's Atlas-V 401 rocket in action, launching NASA's TDRS-L satellite in Jan. 2014. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace
ULA’s Atlas-V 401 rocket in action, launching NASA’s TDRS-L satellite in Jan. 2014. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

To date, the Atlas-V, in its numerous variants, has delivered 56 primary payloads into space. These have included several commercial communications satellites and a range of military payloads, including members of the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), geostationary-orbiting elements of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), and a pair of heavyweight Multi-User Objective System (MUOS) communications satellites. Additionally, the Atlas has delivered a number of classified payloads on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and has launched the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)-3 mini-shuttle (also known as the “X-37B”) on three occasions in April 2010, March 2011, and December 2012. The most recent OTV-3 mission ended in October, with a successful landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, after 675 days aloft.

Although the Atlas V’s pedigree has been dominated by military payloads, it has also delivered a number of important missions of exploration into the heavens. These include the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in August 2005, the Pluto-bound New Horizons in January 2006, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) in June 2009, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in February 2010, the Jupiter-headed Juno orbiter in August 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and Curiosity rover in November 2011, the Van Allen Probes in August 2012, and, most recently, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft in November 2013.

As for Orbital’s plans to upgrade their Antares, the company released the following statement:

“The company has confirmed its ability to accelerate the introduction of a new main propulsion system for the Antares rocket and has scheduled three additional CRS launches in the first, second and fourth quarters of 2016 using the upgraded vehicle. The greater payload performance of the upgraded Antares will permit Cygnus spacecraft on each of these missions to deliver over 20% more cargo than in prior plans. With necessary supplier contracts now in place, the first new propulsion systems are expected to arrive at the Antares final assembly facility at Wallops Island, Virginia in mid-2015 to begin vehicle integration and testing.”

Orbital has yet to say exactly who will supply Antares with a new main propulsion system, or what engine it will be.

The combination of using the more powerful Atlas-V 401 (35 percent more cargo) and upgraded Antares in 2016 (20 percent more cargo for three flights: Orb 5, Orb-6, and Orb-7) eliminates the need for an eighth ISS CRS flight under Orbital’s CRS contract with NASA, which keeps the company on schedule and prevents any material adverse financial impacts in 2015 (or future years) as Orbital carries out their $1.9 billion CRS commitment and Antares propulsion upgrade programs.

An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29, 2014, following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket Oct. 28. Photo Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach
An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29, 2014, following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket Oct. 28. Photo Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

Orbital’s launch site itself at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which suffered quite a bit of damage when Antares exploded, will be used again to launch Antares and Cygnus to the ISS, and should be ready to do so at the start of 2016. A number of support buildings in the immediate area of the launch site suffered broken windows and imploded doors, with a sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad and buildings nearest the pad having suffered the most severe damage. Damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods was extensive, two lightning rods were completely leveled in the explosion, and the area was littered with debris.

The effects of the explosion were largely contained within the southern third of Wallops Island, in the area immediately adjacent to the pad, and no obvious signs of water pollution (such as oil sheens) or impacts to fish and wildlife resources have been observed. MARS has since has assessed the clean-up, repair, and reconstruction work necessary to return the Wallops launch complex to operational status, and current plans call for repairs to be substantially completed by the fall of 2015, with re-certification taking place before the end of 2015.

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Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS » ORB-4 »


  1. I thought I heard somewhere that SpaceX is $60M +/- for the F9…Does anyone know the price of the ULA Atlas 5 401 rocket? They also get to reduce the number of flights from 8 to 7 because the Atlas 5 provides 35% more lift…Interesting someone else will have to provide the 8 launch I suppose…

    • While Orbital likely talked to SpaceX (reports said they negotiated with 2 US launch providers) price was probably not so much of an issue as availability. SpaceX is cranking out boosters as fast as they can, but they are behind their planned 2014 launch cadence, and they are booked up in 2015. I doubt they have any boosters to spare. On the other hand, ULA gets a billion dollars a year from the government to be launch-ready with EELVs ready and available on relatively short notice. That means they’ve got available booster cores at the ready for unexpected needs just like this.

  2. Hi Tracy,

    There won’t be an 8th launch, because – as stated – the Atlas-V’s extra lift capacity, ALONG WITH the new Antares’ extra lift capacity, completely eliminates the need for Orbital to fly an 8th CRS flight. The OLD Antares would have required 8 flights to launch the total weight agreed to in Orbital’s CRS contract.

    As for SpaceX costs, that doesn’t matter, Orbital went with the sure thing here, rather than giving their business to a competitor, & I for one don’t blame them.

  3. Mike,
    Do you know if SpaceX successfully recovers a booster from this CRS5 launch on Dec 16, and then reuses for CRS6 or CRS7 does NASA get a partial refund or credit from the contract based on any savings created?

    • Tracy,

      The CRS-5 launch date has now been delayed to no earlier than Dec. 19.

      No reason for delay is currently available.

      • Joe,
        What do you make of the Barge Landing? The how about the plan to Barge Land, refuel and fly the booster back to the processing plant near the Launch site…

        • Tracy,

          It appears to me to be (a long overdue) acknowledgement that the retrograde maneuver required for the previous fly back plan was not practical (we have discussed this subject before). The Barge scenario is certainly potentially more practical than the previous one, but it raises more issues than it resolves.

          To list just a few:
          (1) The current barge is called a Drone (no crew), but a crew would be required for refueling and re-launch. Is the Barge currently capable of supporting a crew or is a new design required?
          (2) If the F9 first stage is to be refueled at the Barge, the Barge will have to have a supply of four propellants: Kerosene, Liquid Oxygen (Cryogenic), Nitrogen Tetroxide (Caustic/Toxic), Mono Methyl Hydrazine (Caustic/Toxic). How are these propellants to be provided to the Barge?
          (3) How many barges would be required to maintain the 100’2 (if not 1,000’s) of flights/year that Musk claims is the goal?
          (4) You would now have 2 launches required for each use of the Stage. How does this affect the one day turnaround (with no refurbishment) also promised by Musk?

          These issues and others leads to the big question – How much does all this ancillary hardware and operations cost? Remember reusability is of value only if it actually reduces cost. It is not intuitively obvious that this concept (if they can actually make it work) will do so.

          • Joe,
            I agree…I don’t think landing, refueling, launching again is going to be practical…Rather use a dozen or so drone barges collect and store the booster 3 to 5 at a time then bring them into port for processing…Relaunching from sea will require a whole crew…There will be accidents…It will be a mess…Unless if the whole thing is done robotically… Big If…

            • The whole barge fly-back concept has been spun up from a brief off-hand comment from Musk, not an official company announcement of anything they’ve done more than had simple brainstorming thoughts about. A major limitation to it would be related to engine life. The Merlin 1D engines have a design life of 40 cycles. Testing after recovery and re-flights will see what they can really get, but whatever it is, flying a booster back from a barge to the land will mean cutting its useful missions in half – or at least doing that for 3 of the engines (the ones used during landing).

              • The 40 use number is interesting and a lot more practical than Musk’s statements (tweets)to the effect that each Falcon 9 first stage will be re-useable 1,000 times with a one day turnaround time and no required refurbishment

                As to the fly back from the barge reducing the engines useful missions, would not the same be true of the engine burns to do the return to launch site scenario (assuming it were practical)?

                • Assuming that by “cycle” they’re referring to a complete launch and landing, flying back from a barge would require twice as many cycles.

                  Launch second stage and payload then land back at the Cape = 1 cycle.

                  Launch second stage and payload then land on a barge + Launch from the barge and land back at the Cape = 2 cycles.

                  Since the fly-back from the barge wouldn’t have the second stage and payload, it wouldn’t need as much fuel either. A lower altitude flight with lower weight, means less engine requirements. The F9R test article flew using 3 engines. Doing something comparable in a barge fly-back scenario, the three used for flyback from the barge would hit their life expectancy in half the number of complete missions.

                  • In the direct fly back scenario, however, there would still be additional engine re-starts (for retrograde and then landing) and additional run time on the engines. That may (or may not) be less than for a Barge scenario, but it would have to be taken into account.

                    I am not being contentious, in fact it is interesting to talk to a SpaceX supporter that can discuss issues without it turning into a flame war.

                    • Sure there are still restarts in a direct flyback, but there would be more restarts for a land and re-launch. The only barge scenario that would reduce burn time is landing on the barge and transporting the booster back to the pad by boat for test/refurb/relaunch. Flying it back means another launch burn and another landing burn, which together would surely be significantly greater than the difference saved in a shorter retrograde burn.

                      I would say that in general I’m a space exploration fan. I think SpaceX is trying to do some really ambitious things, and has bade great strides in a relatively short time. Smart planning with things like testing a re-use program on boosters that would otherwise be wasted is a key to their rapid pace. Probably not everyone who sees and appreciates that is wearing blinders, but it seems many do, just as there are those who can’t see past their perception that “old space” companies are the only ones doing things the right way.

                    • The other thing to watch on this flight, that SpaceX probably won’t talk about much if at all on this flight, is what they learn from returning with grid fins. They’ve already shown that they can keep the Falcon9 booster stable without them. I suspect their value lies more in gaining additional cross-range ability for a return to launch point without needing to loft or burn additional fuel.

                    • We have beaten the Barge vs. Direct Fly back about as much as needed. I think the only practical method of recovery would be the Barge landing and Ocean return (assuming they can pull off the precision landing repeatedly/reliably).

                      Excellent point about the grid fins aiding precision landing. It may also show how narrow their payload margins are and a retrograde maneuver would use a lot of fuel.

                      The landing will be a neat trick if they can pull it off even once.

          • “retrograde maneuver required for the previous fly back plan was not practical”

            While that indeed might be the case, the official line from SpaceX has been that they won’t be approved to land at the cape for safety reasons until they’ve proven precision landing capability.

            1) SpaceX has said nothing about refueling from their current barge, clearly that wouldn’t be possible from a platform not designed for it. Musk made an off-hand comment that refueling and flyback might be something possible in the future. SpaceX itself has not announced/shown any actual plans for refueling and launching at sea.

            2) Probably the same think that is done with fuels loaded at Kennedy Space Center, or anywhere else. They have to be transported to where they will be stored and loaded.

            3) I doubt the current barge, or any barge has anything to do with Musk’s long-term vision for high-volume launch rates. The 100s or 1000s of launches a year rates are concepts for the future, with different launch vehicles that are fully reusable, like MCT or another launcher using the Raptor engines. Falcon9 won’t get a reusable second stage, the energy of kerosene/LOX is too low. Full reusability will need to be solidly proven and matured, and new launch facilities will need to be located and built for high-volume flights ( due to FAA restrictions Boca Chica can only do 12 launches a year, SpaceX can at best do 12 a year from the Cape).

            4) Refurbishing time aside, just cutting the mission use of at least 3 of the engines in half by a barge flyback would be a pretty significant detractor.

            • Two points:
              – As to your second point. To transport the fuels to the Barge would require some kind of ocean going transport. That would require new types of vehicles than those currently in use.

              – No sarcasm intended in this statement. Musk makes a lot of “offhand comments” (if that is what they are) and a lot of people (including in the main stream press) take these comments seriously. If these statements (tweets) do not represent what SpaceX is actually trying to do, perhaps it would be a good idea if someone convinced Musk to stop Tweeting.

              • Yes, certainly. The fuel would need to be transported to where it is refueled, the same as it does anywhere the boosters are refueled. The type of vehicle used would depend on where it’s being transported. Seems pretty logical.

                Not seeing any sarcasm there at all. SpaceX does a pretty poor job of media relations and the press and folks in forums tend to fill in the gaps from what scraps they get. Case in point when they attempted recovery of CRS-3 and Musk tweeted that it hit the water and went kaboom. That spun off into folks on blogs and forums writing about how it exploded and the ramifications of how big the explosion would have been based on the remaining fuel and oxidizer, etc. All based on the word kaboom in a tweet, where 128 character limit meant “kaboom” was used instead of “broke apart in the waves.” People tend to spin a lot more into a tweet than is actually there.

                • The point about the fuel transport ships is they are additional vehicles’ with purchase and operating costs that would have to be offset against any savings from any reuse of Falcon 9 hardware.

                  The Space Shuttle Orbiter was reusable and a vehicle with many valuable capabilities, but is was also supposed to lower the cost of operations. It did not because the turnaround cost offset the savings of reusing the hardware.

                  If you start adding in Barges, fuel transports, extra return flights, etc. it could easily turn out to be the same for SpaceX.

                  • Absolutely. As a landing pad for testing landing capability before that capability is trusted enough to risk the facilities and personnel at KSC, a barge makes good sense. It doesn’t even have to be stable enough for the booster to remain standing once it’s touched down.

                    For a mobile refueling station, and standard practice of a high-volume reuse program I think it has a lot of potential problems. For each of those problems there can be solutions, but everthing has a cost. At some point, the closer that cost gets to the cost of a new booster, the more pointless it becomes. More than fuel transport costs (I find it hard to expect the cost of leasing a fuel transport ship and crew for a day getting close to the cost of manufacturing a new booster) I think the weather would be a problem. A launch from the cape, or a launch/return depend on the weather at the cape, which often causes delays. A launch at the cape and landing on a barge will depend on weather at the cape, weather at the barge landing site, and weather off of Africa where the waves are generated, all being right at the same time.

    • Tracy: I know NASA requires a new Dragon capsule for each flight. I would be very surprised if the contract didn’t require a new booster as well. In either case you can be pretty sure that the first couple of boosters recovered will be dissected by the engineers. One good place to reuse a booster may be the upcoming launch abort test

      • Thanks for the input…This means that NASA will never benefit from cheaper launch costs as they are requiring a new system for every launch…And also eliminates competition between SpaceX, Lockheed, and Boing from direct competition thus insuring government underwriting of the space program with centralized planning as the decider rather than the Market…

        • It means they won’t have any re-use *under their current COTS contract*. Once the current contracts are up, and new contracts for services get bid, if SpaceX has a functional, re-usable system in place that meets NASA’s requirements and saves even more money, they can bid it. They aren’t locked into the requirements of the current contract forever into the future.

  4. I thought ULA had a shortage of RD-180 engines. How come Orbital Sciences is allowed to buy Russian engines and ULA is not. And why are they wasting money rebuilding the Wallops facility; since they’re merging with ATK, why not go for the Ares-1?

  5. I thought Musk didn’t want to have anything to do with the water.

    If he can afford a barge, maybe he should look at Sea Dragon.

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