This week NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) announced they are in negotiations with Dulles, Va.-based Orbital ATK for use of facilities at the Florida spaceport—facilities which exist to process rockets and integrate them with spacecraft (such as capsules and space shuttles) for flight.
Little details were released other than the fact that negotiations are underway on a “prospective property use agreement, which also will include a mobile launcher platform,” to use High Bay 2 in the famed Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The enormous 525-foot-tall facility houses four high bays and was used previously to ready NASA’s Apollo Saturn V moon rockets and space shuttles for flight, before being driven atop giant crawlers to their seaside launch pads 39A and 39B a few miles east.
In a statement this afternoon, Orbital ATK confirmed that negotiations for potential use of VAB High Bay 2 is part of the company’s “preliminary planning supporting the possible development of an EELV-class Next Generation Launch vehicle system.”
A company spokesperson did confirm to AmericaSpace that Liberty, a full rocket and spacecraft launch system ATK had offered NASA a few years ago for the first round of $1.1 billion Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contracts for ISS crew transport, is not being considered. Instead, a fair amount of “carry-over” work will go into the new rocket’s development.
NASA ended up not awarding Liberty a contract, even though the system was being designed around making use of heritage hardware and existing KSC infrastructure like the VAB. Without NASA funding to develop the Liberty system, ATK decided to focus on other areas.
However, earlier this year the U.S. Air Force awarded Orbital ATK a $47 million contract for development of something similar: “a solid rocket propulsion system prototype to support the EELV program for national security space missions.”
The award includes options for additional scope, valued at up to $133 million.
The Air Force also awarded the company a $3 million contract last December to perform a Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation effort, requiring the company to “complete studies to advance technologies that enhance performance and safety while reducing cost in support of the next generation booster.”
Liberty was based on the same idea, employing an extended version of a space shuttle solid rocket booster as the primary propulsion for the first couple minutes after liftoff.
“All the best features of solid motors, including operational reliability, high lift-off thrust, shorter development schedules and, importantly, affordability have improved over time with the advancement of new technologies. This means we can offer the Air Force a low technical risk and very cost-competitive American-made propulsion alternative,” said Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division. “We are honored to be selected to develop this capability to help the Air Force achieve low-cost assured access for national security space launch requirements.”
Work on the program will take place at Orbital ATK’s facilities in Magna, Utah; Iuka, Miss.; and Chandler, Ariz., from 2016 to 2019.
“The merger of Orbital and ATK about a year ago created a new level of technical capabilities and cost synergies that have strengthened our propulsion system solution to the Air Force,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight System Group. “This funding, together with our own research and development investments, will lead to an operational launch capability in 2019.”
Currently the U.S. government depends on United Launch Alliance (ULA) to loft the nation’s most sensitive national security satellites atop their Atlas-V and Delta-IV rockets. But both rockets will be retired within the next few years as ULA focuses on developing the Vulcan rocket, and the Delta-IV Heavy is the only rocket in the U.S arsenal capable of launching the nation’s heaviest payloads until SpaceX’s much anticipated Falcon Heavy rocket is ready and certified by the Air Force, which won’t be for another year or two (for now SpaceX will compete for DOD contracts that their Falcon-9 can support).
The move announced this week at KSC is one of three long-term growth initiatives announced by David Thompson, president and CEO of Orbital ATK, during an earnings call with investors earlier this year.
“Our investments in 2016, as well as those of the Air Force, will cover the initial phase of design and development work, with a decision in the first half of 2017 concerning the remaining activity to actually build and test this new launch vehicle family,” Thompson said.
Orbital ATK hopes to serve not just DOD launch needs, but the commercial industry and NASA as well.
Liberty would have utilized an upper stage taken from an Arianespace Ariane V rocket, but the new rocket, if it becomes reality, would likely employ a BE-3 upper stage from Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin. The Air Force contract awarded to Orbital ATK also covers development of an extendable nozzle for that engine, but the company stated they are looking at three upper stage options.
“Orbital ATK has a long history of working with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “We are excited about the possibility of utilizing KSC facilities for a future EELV-class launch system.”
NASA is currently modifying High Bay 3 to support processing the agency’s giant heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule, which will fly astronauts on missions beyond Earth orbit (BEO) for the first time in decades starting sometime in the early 2020s.
However, SLS/Orion missions are currently scheduled few and far between, with an expected flight rate from pad 39B of once per year at best. Should Orbital ATK’s next generation EELV rocket become a reality, it would fly off the same pad, using a former shuttle and Apollo-era mobile launch platform (MLP) and the agency’s second crawler transporter (the other will serve SLS).
KSC has been trying to transform into a multi-user spaceport for some time, hoping to bring in business to make use of facilities since retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011. Boeing now holds the keys to all three former shuttle processing hangars (OPF’s) for their CST-100 Starliner crew capsule and secretive USAF X-37B spaceplane, and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), who recently received a NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contract to resupply the ISS from 2019 through 2024, will make use of KSC’s Operations and Checkout Building to process their Dream Chaser spaceplane and land it on the nearby KSC Landing Facility (formerly knowns as the Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF).
“Over the past few years, the people of Kennedy have worked diligently to transform the center. We are now a true multi-user spaceport supporting a variety of different partners successfully,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy director. “We look forward to working with Orbital ATK in the future to help expand the capabilities of this unique, historic asset.”