SpaceX and Orbital ATK have issued separate updates aiming to convey good orderly direction in their respective rocket launch operations in the aftermath of a string of mission failures during the past year.
SpaceX believes a faulty helium-tank strut triggered the post-launch disintegration of its Falcon 9 CRS-7 rocket and Dragon spacecraft on June 28. Orbital and engine maker GenCorp have cited differing possibilities for the Oct. 28 explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.
Both blasts came in cargo-resupply missions for the International Space Station. An April 28 ISS resupply mission involving a Russian Soyuz rocket also ended in failure when its Progress spacecraft tumbled from orbit before it could reach the space station.
With probes into all three mishaps ongoing, there’s been spreading anxiety about the impact on the multinational ISS and the future of private-sector space partnerships.
On Aug. 12, Orbital — which shares NASA contracts for ISS cargo missions with SpaceX — issued a lengthy update on its “excellent progress” in resuming its cargo delivery service.
“Orbital is on track to launch its next CRS mission late this year and is moving forward with integration of a new first stage propulsion system into the Antares launch vehicle in preparation for multiple CRS missions in 2016,” Orbital CEO David Thompson said.
“We committed to NASA that we would resume CRS cargo delivery missions as soon as possible under a comprehensive ‘go-forward’ plan after the Antares launch failure last October,” Thompson said. “Since that time, our team has been sharply focused on fulfilling that commitment. With a Cygnus mission slated for later this year and at least three additional missions to the Space Station planned in 2016, we are on track to meet our CRS cargo requirements for NASA.”
Orbital said efforts are under way to prepare an “enhanced Cygnus spacecraft for the next ISS cargo mission.” This time, the company will use United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to power the launch, tentatively set for December at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Orbital also has been “upgrading the Antares rocket,” and has been working with with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport to complete repairs to a launch complex at Wallops Island so CRS missions can resume from Wallops early next year.
“For the OA-4 mission, launching aboard the more powerful Atlas V allows us to better support NASA’s ISS cargo needs with a full load of about 3,500 kg of pressurized cargo, consisting of essential supplies, equipment and science experiments,” said Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital’s Space Systems Group.
“In 2016, we will carry out at least three more CRS missions,” Culbertson said. “Two or possibly three will be launched by Antares rockets — the first of which is on a path to be ready to launch early in the year — and one more will be launched aboard Atlas V to support NASA’s need for additional cargo.”
A day earlier, SpaceX – in cooperation with NASA — posted a briefer update on recent testing of flight technology at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
SpaceX has conducted Crew Dragon flight-simulation tests, featuring detailed checks of the cargo delivery spacecraft’s avionics systems and its hardware and software.
“It may not sound exciting,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s VP of mission assurance. “But it’s a really, really important tool.”
He added: “We can basically fly the Crew Dragon on the ground — flip the switches, touch the screens, test the algorithms and the batteries — all before testing the avionics system in flight. It’s important to get the avionics right before putting it into the capsule.”
SpaceX “hopes for another Falcon 9 launch by the end of the year, and this will help prep for a future Dragon V2 launch,” the company said.
SpaceX also holds NASA contracts to shuttle ISS crew to the space station, splitting those missions with Boeing. The companies hope to begin piloted missions in 2017, ending a reliance on Russian in recent years for crew shuttles.