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April 19, 2013

Orbital's Antares, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation has announced it has figured out the umbilical disconnect issue from its Antares rocket attempt yesterday and will make another try on Friday, April 19, 2013 at 5 PM ET, weather permitting.   Yesterday's hiccup will probably be laughed about a couple years down the road, since Antares has 10 flights scheduled through 2016.

During the countdown to launch on April 17, flight controllers saw that the second-stage umbilical, providing two-way data (basically an Ethernet cable) between the rocket and the launch control center, had disconnected. This disconnection triggered an immediate launch abort and a defueling of the rocket.

Orbital's engineering team determined the cause of the premature disconnect was a combination of "slight" hydraulic movement of the Transport Erector Launcher (TEL), which lifts and holds the rocket in place before launch, and not enough slack in the lanyard to allow for unplanned movement. At launch, the TEL drops down about 12 degrees from vertical, pulling about eight different cords away from the body of rocket.

Adjustments are being made to both the TEL hydraulics and the umbilical – insert a joke about slack here – to make sure the cords stay where they are until they need to move.

 It's easy to give Orbital some slack with the way the company handled the April 17 incident.   Less than 90 minutes after the launch cancellation, Orbital Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson sat in front of a pack of grumpy wolves – er, the media – covering the launch at NASA's Wallops Island Visitor's Center to patiently discuss what happened. 

The Antares program currently has 10 launches on the books, all set to take place from Wallops Island, VA and the MARS Spaceport. Under NASA's COTS commercial supply R&D program, Antares will make one test flight with a "mass simulator," followed by a mid-Summer launch of Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft for a rendezvous and berthing with the International Space Station (ISS). 

Once both COTS flights are completed, Orbital will begin fulfilling a $1.9 billion contract for eight flights under NASA's CRS space station cargo supply program. CRS flights are anticipated to start this fall and continue through 2016 under the contract.

NASA is in the process of developing a follow-on contract for supplying ISS through at least 2020. While no official decision has been made by NASA and its international partners, discussions have taken place to add another person to the six member ISS crew and to extend station operations through 2028.

Both actions would likely translate to more business for the two current CRS contractors, SpaceX (News - Alert) and Orbital Sciences Corporation. NASA likes having two separate providers from two separate launch sites to provide ISS supply, providing redundancy in case of a problem and competition to drive down costs and stimulate innovation. While it is possible other U.S. companies could compete for NASA’s cargo supply business, NASA is unlikely to provide any funding for a third company to get into the mix. A new entrant would likely have to foot all or most of the bill associated with an ISS rendezvous and berthing demonstration, since NASA already has two "qualified" vendors.

Edited by Blaise McNamee

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