A NASA report questions whether Orbital ATK can bounce back quickly enough from a rocket explosion still under investigation to resume its role in International Space Station missions.
The space agency’s office of inspector general said Sept. 18 that ongoing uncertainties almost a year after the explosion raise doubts about the company’s ability to meet service schedules for shuttling cargo to the space station.
Orbital and engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings (formerly GenCorp) are at odds over the cause of the Oct. 28 explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket and the Cygnus spacecraft it was carrying. Now, NASA fears Orbital’s contingency plans for working around the situation will prove too time-consuming.
Orbital responded to the skeptical NASA report by immediately tweeting that it can meet its next launch commitment.
“We are on schedule for our ISS resupply launch in Dec.,” Orbital said in the Twitter post. “#Cygnus cargo module in FLA now, service module ships soon.”
Under plans, Orbital would hitch its Cygnus cargo capsule to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket for an ISS resupply mission set to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., sometime in December. Orbital aims to get its Antares rocket back into launch rotation by mid-2016, featuring a different engine.
An Orbital spokesman reiterated that upbeat assessment for Outer Business.
“We are right on schedule and making great progress toward resuming CRS cargo delivery missions, with the (next Orbital) mission scheduled to be carried out before the end of this year,” Orbital’s Sean Wilson said Sept. 18. “The Cygnus cargo module is already in Florida, and the Cygnus service module will be shipped to the launch site from our Dulles, Va., facilities in less than a month.
“We are also well along in preparing the Antares rocket for its return to flight in 2016, which will follow the second (Atlas-Cygnus) launch currently scheduled in March,” the spokesman added. “The new engines are currently being integrated with the first stage core, with pre-launch testing to follow in the coming weeks and months.”
However, NASA in its report noted Orbital never previously has used the Atlas to launch the Cygnus. That means protracted testing, which already will be under heightened scrutiny in the wake of last year’s rocket explosion, one of three by various ISS contractors during the past year.
As a result, “Orbital’s Return to Flight Plan contains technical and operational risks and may be difficult to execute as designed and on the timetable proposed,” NASA said.
Orbital currently holds a $1.9 billion NASA contract for what originally was to be eight ISS missions. The next launch would be Orbital’s fourth under the contract.
Orbital, which is publicly traded (NYSE: OA), boasts a sufficiently diverse set of aerospace operations that its Antares difficulties haven’t cut into its stock price. On Sept. 18, its shares were trading midsession at around $76.17, or toward the higher end of 52-week highs and lows, respectively of $81.06 and $46.76.
The Dulles,Va.-based company also posted upbeat quarterly earnings last month.