Citing exceptional and beyond performance expectations on the Return To Flight mission of their Antares rocket during the OA-5 launch of the Cygnus resupply craft to the International Space Station last month, Orbital ATK sat down with NASASpaceflight.com to discuss the realignment of the company’s upcoming OA-7 mission early next year from Antares to Atlas V – a move that will provide critical upmass capabilities for NASA to the Station.
High praise for Antares – explaining the move to Atlas V:
Despite initial reports that the switch of the upcoming OA-7 Cygnus resupply mission to the Space Station was moved from Orbital ATK’s newly returned to flight Antares vehicle to an Atlas V because of an unspecified issue with Antares during her RTF, Orbital ATK has reiterated again that the switch in launch vehicles has nothing to do with Antares’ performance.
Antares was grounded following an October 2014 launch mishap shortly after liftoff that destroyed Antares and the Cygnus Orb-3 mission while narrowly avoiding significant and severe damage to the launch pad at Wallops and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
In the near two year stand down of Antares launches, Orbital ATK undertook a redesign of the Antares core stage and a switch in engines to a more robust system to provide additional thrust to the launch vehicle and more upmass capability for the Cygnus itself.
The Antares rocket that suffered a mishap in October 2014 was part of the 100 series of the rocket, specifically the 130.
When Antares returned to flight last month, it debuted its new 230 variant configuration.
In a one-on-one interview with NASASpaceflight.com, Orbital ATK Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Division at the Space Systems Group, Frank DeMauro, discussed Antares performance on the OA-5 launch.
“The Antares team is looking at all of the data, but all indications are that Antares performed beautifully. It actually performed a little better than we expected.”
To this end, Mr. DeMauro clarified that Antares was not the reason why Orbital ATK and NASA decided to switch the OA-7 mission to an Atlas V.
“This decision to switch to the Atlas had nothing to do with Antares. There is nothing about this mission on OA-5 that give us any qualms about going to Antares for the next mission.
“This was about helping the customer get more cargo up and, looking over the next two years as far as the schedule goes, giving them more schedule assurance.
“But this had nothing to do with any concerns that Orbital ATK or NASA had about the Antares rocket. If the deal to use the Atlas [on OA-7] didn’t come to fruition, we would be ready to launch on Antares.”
Expanding on how the decision to switch OA-7 to an Atlas V occurred, Mr. DeMauro stated that “It really came about as part of our normal process for planning missions on the contract. We’re an almost constant dialogue with NASA on mission status and hardware status. But we’re also in frequent contact with them in terms of the manifest and the traffic at the ISS.
“This came out of one of those standard conversations in which we talked about their cargo plan as it was. And then the conversation went to the possibility where NASA could benefit from additional cargo on one of our upcoming flights.
“It was in those conversations where the idea came up of how could we get more cargo up to the ISS for NASA, and the idea of using the Atlas to do that given the success we had launching the OA-4 and OA-6 on an Atlas as part of our return to flight initiative.”
After examining the upcoming schedule of CRS-1 flights, from OA-7 through OA-11, Mr. DeMauro stated that the teams and the discussion quickly focused on OA-7 as the logical choice to switch to an Atlas V.
“As we discussed it, we looked at the launch manifest over the next couple of years, and it’s really a busy manifest for us. We have 5 more missions on CRS-1.
“We then focused on OA-7, our next mission.”
As Mr. DeMauro related, the conversations regarding the switch of OA-7 to Atlas V were already in work with NASA and United launch Alliance (ULA) prior to the launch of OA-5 last month.
With specific regard to the amount of upmass increase the switch to Atlas will afford the OA-7 mission, Mr. DeMauro noted that it will be a little more than 300 kilograms, or roughly 700 pounds.
“It’ll be very similar to the mission we flew on OA-6. We’re going to carry over 3,500 kilograms of cargo inside the cargo module and also the external CubeSat Deployer for NASA as well.
“So altogether we expect, between the pressurized cargo and the CubeSat Deployer, that we’ll approach or even go over 3,600 kilograms of total cargo.”
This extra 300 kg on OA-7 will be in addition to the contracted CRS-1 cargo upmass requirements Orbital ATK currently has with NASA.
Mr. DeMauro also specifically noted that the additional upmass on OA-7 will not be making up for any upmass lost on previous Cygnus flights.
Moreover, Mr. DeMauro stated that, in terms of the costs associated with an Atlas V rocket for OA-7, the CRS-1 contract “has the flexibility built into it where we could provide more cargo and switch launch vehicles.”
Importantly, Mr. DeMauro discussed the fact that Orbital ATK’s discussions with NASA regarding switching a Cygnus to Atlas only involved the move of one mission.
With OA-7 now scheduled for an Atlas, no further CRS-1 contract Cygnus’ are under discussion to fly on any launch vehicle aside from Antares.
Moreover, for ULA, the OA-7 mission represents the first execution of a RapidLaunch service contract after the company announced the initiative, due to a stockpile of Atlas V core stages and Centaur upper stages, just two months ago on 13 September 2016.
As part of the announcement, ULA noted they would notionally be able to take a mission from the signing of a launch service agreement to launch within “as little as three months” – a time frame that more or less matches the four month timeframe from signing of the OA-7 launch contract to its target launch date of March 2017.
For Orbital ATK, Mr. DeMauro said, “Anytime you can get something from inking a launch service agreement to a launch in almost four months on the nose, that’s pretty impressive. So that’s pretty rapid.
“In this case, Atlas had the hardware, we had our compatibility with the rocket already proven, we know the facilities, we have the same processes, and that all enabled this rapid turnaround from launch service agreement signing to launch.
“I believe that’s what ULA’s intention was with this rapid turnaround capability. And we’re certainly taking advantage of that.”
Part of the ability to take advantage of the RapidLaunch ULA offering is the fact that Cygnus was specifically designed to be compatible with multiple launch vehicles, including the Atlas V.
Also enabling this RapidLaunch initiative for OA-7 is the fact that Orbital ATK is immensely familiar with the processing facilities and Ground Support Equipment at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, having launched both OA-4 and OA-6 missions on Atlas Vs in December 2015 and March 2016, respectively.
Looking ahead to the final months of processing for OA-7, the Cygnus that will be used for this flight is currently in its two constituent stages – the Service Module and the Cargo Module – at Orbital ATK’s Dulles manufacturing and processing facility and Thales Alenia Space’s manufacturing facility outside Turin, Italy, respectively.
“The Service Module for OA-7 is complete. It’s done with all of its testing and is essentially in storage right now.
“The Cargo Module is all built and tested and going through its final processes now.”
As is standard for Cygnus processing, the Service Module and Cargo Module are always mated together during final processing operations that occur at the launch site itself, never at Orbital ATK’s Dulles manufacturing facility.
To this end, Orbital ATK plans to ship the OA-7 Cygnus Service Module from Dulles to the Cape in the middle of January – though that date is still To Be Determined.
Likewise, the OA-7 Cargo Module will ship from Thales Alenia Space directly to Cape Canaveral in the second week of January.
When the Service Module ships from Dulles, the crew that normally follows it from Dulles to Wallops will simply follow it from Dulles to the Cape instead.
As Mr. DeMauro related, “We actually don’t have anyone permanently located at either launch site. We do all of our vehicle processing at our integration and testing facility in Dulles, and the team then travels to the launch site to put the spacecraft through its final testing and integration of the Cargo and Service Modules, get it mounted to the launch vehicle, and support the launch itself.
“So for OA-7, it’s a matter of sending people to Florida instead of sending them to Wallops.”
With OA-7 now targeting March 2017, Mr. DeMauro noted that Orbital ATK will be ready to launch two additional missions of Cygnus to the ISS in 2017 on Antares.
Under the current plan, OA-8 will launch sometime in the summer, followed by the OA-9 mission in late fall.
However, “When we actually launch those missions is up to NASA,” stated Mr. DeMauro. “They do their analysis of when and what the traffic is like at the ISS, when they actually need the cargo, crew arrivals and departures.
“So we make sure we’re ready to support them when they need us, and then they make the actual determination of when we launch.”
(Images: Orbital ATK, NASA, ULA, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)