Orbital ATK Pursuing New Solid Fuel Launch Vehicle

orbital_ATK_logoDULLES, Va. — Orbital ATK is working on a next-generation medium- to heavy-lift launch vehicle that it plans to have operational in 2019.

Details of the new booster were revealed last week in a $47 million contract awarded to the company by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Systems Directorate.

The contract funds Orbital ATK for “the development of prototypes of the GEM 63XL strap-on solid rocket motor, the Common Booster Segment (CBS) solid rocket motor, and an Extendable Nozzle for Blue Origin’s BE-3U upper stage engine.”

The GEM 63XL strap-on solid rocket motor will be used in Oribtal ATK’s next generation booster and on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket, the Air Force aid. ULA is developing Vulcan in partnership with Blue Origin.

“All the best features of solid motors, including operational reliability, high lift-off thrust, shorter development schedules and, importantly, affordability have improved over time with the advancement of new technologies. This means we can offer the Air Force a low technical risk and very cost-competitive American-made propulsion alternative,” said Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division. “We are honored to be selected to develop this capability to help the Air Force achieve low-cost assured access for national security space launch requirements.”

The company will conduct work on the contract at its facilities in: Magna, Utah; Iuka, Miss.; Chandler, Ariz.; and Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.

“The merger of Orbital and ATK about a year ago created a new level of technical capabilities and cost synergies that have strengthened our propulsion system solution to the Air Force,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight System Group. “This funding, together with our own research and development investments, will lead to an operational launch capability in 2019.”

Under the contract, Orbital ATK will contribute $31 million to develop the technologies. The Air Force has options to contribute an additional $133 million to future stages of the program for a total of $180.2 million. Orbital ATK’s would contribute an additional $93.7 million for a total of $124.8 million if the Air Force exercises all its options.

Orbital ATK also received a separate $3 million Air Force contract in December to “complete studies to advance technologies that enhance performance and safety while reducing cost in support of the next generation booster,” the company said in a press release.

The new rocket could fill a void left as ULA phases out its expensive Delta IV boosters. The Delta IV is primarily used to loft heavy military satellites into orbit.

The Air Force is funding propulsion work by multiple companies as part of an effort to transition way from dependence on Russian- supplied RD-180 propulsion system used on ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements is our end goal,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander. “These awards are essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space, transition the EELV program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the U.S. launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.”

Orbital ATK is currently developing a five-segment version of the space shuttle solid rocket booster (SRB) for use as part of NASA’s Space Launch System. The boosters will be strapped to the main core of the rocket, which will be powered by liquid fuel.

The company has conducted a lot of previous work on modifying the SRB to serve as a launch vehicle. Before its merger with Orbital Sciences, ATK developed the Ares I booster to fly NASA’s Orion human spacecraft into orbit. Ares I, which also used a modified SRB as its first stage, flew one test flight before the Obama Administration canceled the program.

ATK also designed a rocket named Liberty as part of the bid it submitted for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The rocket featured a five-segment SRB as its first stage and a modified core stage from the Arianespace’s Ariane 5 booster.

NASA did not select ATK’s proposal for the crew program. The European Space Agency (ESA) has since decided to develop the new Ariane 6 booster, which means the Ariane 5 will be phased out in the years ahead.

  • Does anyone else find this press release confusing? The headline makes you think Orbital ATK is doing a totally new launch vehicle (a la Minotaur or Taurus). But then they refer back to Vulcan.

  • Byron

    I’m with you, Jeff – poorly written and (consequently) confusing.

  • Douglas Messier

    This isn’t a press release. It’s a story I wrote.

    I have no idea what the new rocket will actually look like. I mentioned the previous projects (Ares I, Liberty) to show the company has done a lot of work on developing SRBs as an independent launch vehicle.

    My guess is that a five-segment SRB based on the Ares I and Liberty work could be the first stage core with the BE-3 as an upper stage. Maybe they would augment the first stage with smaller solid boosters using the GEM-63XL motors.

  • Doug, thanks for the clarification.

    Are you sure they are working on a new Orbital ATK specific launch vehicle? The way I read the previous press releases, and this summary, I’m not sure there is a new rocket other than Vulcan and Blue’s orbital vehicle. I certainly haven’t seen anything suggesting Orbital is making a new vehicle of their own.

    The GEM-63XLs seem like the Vulcan-specific strap-ons, and the work on the BE-3 nozzle is just a continuation of ATK’s composites expertise. The BE-3 seems to be a replacement for the RL-10 on Vulcan (and any Blue built orbital vehicle). My reading has not indicated a new Orbital-specific vehicle.

    In the spirit of peer review, you might want to check with Orbital PA to see if they were trying imply anything else in their press releases.

  • Douglas Messier

    Yes, I’m sure. Orbital ATK confirmed it to Space News. There was also specific language in the USAF contract summary indicating the technology is for Orbital ATK’s next generation launch vehicle and that some of it would be used on ULA’s Vulcan.

  • Right you are! The Space News article specifically says “intended for use on an Orbital ATK next generation launch vehicle.” My brain interpreted that as Vulcan, and not a specific O-ATK rocket. Boy that would be an interesting sight: a solid 1st stage shedding solid boosters as it goes up!

  • Douglas Messier

    Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    It sounds quite similar to the original Ariane 6 design. That design was supposed to launch for about $100M IIRC, so ATK could have themselves something to compete with ULA. Not exactly gonna worry SpaceX, but could put ATK in a better position than currently.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Are there plans at ATK to reuse first stage?