COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — To win the Air Force's upcoming launch services contract, Orbital ATK will strip cost from its Next Generation Launch system by reusing components and materials from its other active rocket lines, a company official told Defense News on Wednesday.
Although SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are widely seen as the frontrunners to replace the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), Orbital ATK believes it can offer a more cost-effective launch system, said Mike Laidley, the company's vice president of space launch programs.
The company plans on offering a family of two rockets — the intermediate-class 500 series and the heavy-lift 500XL — for the Air Force competition. As it formulates the final proposal, commonality between the Next Generation Launch (NGL) system and other Orbital ATK rockets like Pegasus and Antares will be critical for augmenting reliability while decreasing cost, Laidley said in an interview at Space Symposium.
"There are size differences with regard to the amount of propulsion, but you can certainly use common materials in the motor production activities. You can use common technologies in batteries and TVC [thrust vector controls] and avionics system," he said. Composite materials that were featured on the company's Antares and Minotaur launch systems will also be used on the NGL design.
While SpaceX and ULA will likely also depend on commonality to help drive the cost of their systems down, Laidley said the distinction is that Orbital ATK has a larger number of launch systems and boosters to draw from, providing more of an opportunity to benefit from economies of scale or the ability to be more responsive to changes in demand.
"We have this whole family of launch vehicles, so we have this diverse work base to spread our team across if there are changes in the launch schedules that are required for EELV," he said. "So we can move people between programs to handle either surges or lulls in the production flow."
For competitive reasons, Laidley declined to provide details about the NGL’s estimated cost, or how much could be saved through commonality. But if the launcher is produced at the rate Orbital ATK expects, its Utah-based motor production facility will be able to shave $600 million off government programs over a 10 year period.
Although the NGL is the newest entry in the competition, Laidley says the launch system is "making great progress" and is on track to meet the Air Force’s goal to begin missions in 2022, with the first certification flight planned for 2021.
The service recently put out a draft request for proposals for an EELV replacement and a final version is expected this summer. Orbital ATK is confident it will be able to nab one of the three contracts — which are planned to be awarded in 2018 — that will help fund development of the launch system itself.
However, the Air Force eventually plans on making a final downselect to two launch providers, and if Orbital ATK does not receive one of the contracts, the company will have to determine whether there’s a business case purely for civil and commercial launch.
"Ultimately we are counting on the anchor customer that the Air Force and the EELV missions would provide," he said. "We’ve looked at this pretty hard, and we believe three to four missions a year are what we need, total. We think we can get a couple of those from the government, and get another one maybe from NASA and the civil group, and another commercial type customer. We don’t need a dozen launches a year to be able to make this profitable for us."
Orbital ATK has completed manufacturing the first development rocket motor case for its new family of intermediate-and large-class space launch vehicles.
Photo Credit: Orbital ATK
Together, the Air Force and Orbital ATK have already invested about $200 million on solid-fueled propulsion technologies that will filter into the NGL system. Its intermediate class vehicle will have a two segment first stage, termed the Castor 600, while the heavy rocket will have a four-segment first stage, termed the Castor 1200. One-segment Castor 300 motors will power the second stage.
"What we're developing on the propulsion front is a segmented solid motor design," he said. "We're redesigning the segment to be [in] composite cases — a new technology to reduce production costs and to leverage experience we have with some of our other composite motor products and to be more efficient."
So far, the company has completed critical design reviews its first and second propulsion stages. Both the C300 and C600 will undergo static fire testing in 2019.
The third stage will comprise a homegrown tank assembly and a motor supplied by another company. Orbital ATK is currently wrapping up trade studies and will select its engine supplier as early as a month from now, Laidley said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.