Decision on new Orbital ATK rocket expected in 2018

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

The competition heats up? Orbital ATK says it will decide whether it will introduce a new commercial rocket sometime in early 2018.

Orbital ATK has released few details about what is known only as its “Next-Generation Launcher.” The vehicle would use solid-fuel lower stages based on space shuttle solid rocket motor segments developed by the company, as well as solid strap-on boosters. A liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen upper stage would use a version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine that company is currently flying on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

The rocket’s design has at least superficial similarities to a vehicle concept called Liberty that ATK proposed prior to its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation. Liberty, with a five-segment shuttle solid rocket booster first stage and a second stage derived from the Ariane 5 core stage provided by Astrium, was itself a commercial spinoff of the cancelled Ares 1 rocket from NASA’s Constellation program. ATK proposed Liberty for NASA’s commercial crew program but failed to win funding.

The decision itself will be based on whether the Air Force remains interested. At the present time the Air Force is investing about half the capital required to develop the rocket. If the Air Force backs out, Orbital ATK will decide against the rocket. If the Air Force support remains firm, they will go ahead with development. Essentially, this story is Orbital ATK lobbying to keep the Air Force support going.



  • wodun

    I hope they are successful as they are an important company for our military and it would be great if they had a way to stay in business without relying on weapons sales.

    My question is if the second stage would be reusable? The engine is capable but I am not rocket nerd enough to math out whether or not it is feasible on technical grounds.

    They have been working on some other space based products so reusing the second stage in orbit would also be useful.

    If the second stage was reusable in some form and the cost of an expendable first stage was lower than the refurbishment costs of a Falcon 9, they could be competitive.

  • Dick Eagleson

    I think you meant to ask if the 3rd stage will be reusable.

    Based on what Orbital-ATK has said thus far about the design of its prospective Next Generation Launch System (NGL) the first two stages would both be based on SLS-type SRB segments. All configurations would have a 1st stage consisting of two SRB segments and a 2nd stage consisting of either one or two segments depending upon the needs of the payload.

    This sort of design makes more sense than the unitary multi-segment booster design Orbital-ATK offered for the since-cancelled Ares 1. First, a two stage design employing either three or four segments provides more payload capacity than a single stage with either three or four segments would. The Ares 1 design alsohad a lot of vibration problems. Solids seem to have more vibration the longer they are.

    In all cases, the 3rd stage would be powered by a vacuum-optimized version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 LOX-LH2 engine, the sea-level-optimized version of which is currently powering the suborbital New Shepard. Orbital-ATK has a contract from USAF under which it is developing the vacuum-optimized version of BE-3. This version of the BE-3 is also slated for use on an optional 3rd stage for Blue Origin’s own New Glenn booster when needed for GTO/BEO missions.

    I believe Blue Origin intends its own BE-3-based upper stage to be reusable, though perhaps not right away. So far as I’m aware, Orbital-ATK has no plans to recover or reuse any parts of NGL. Orbital-ATK has been very publicly skeptical of all recovery/reuse projects either extant or proposed by other builders.

    I share your concerns about the economics of any form of completely expendable rocket booster. At this point in history, that just seems like deliberately leaning into your competitor’s fist to me.

  • wodun

    Dick Eagleson
    March 12, 2017 at 4:52 am
    I think you meant to ask if the 3rd stage will be reusable.

    Yes, thanks. I didn’t read closely enough.

    In all cases, the 3rd stage would be powered by a vacuum-optimized version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 LOX-LH2 engine, the sea-level-optimized version of which is currently powering the suborbital New Shepard.

    Vacuum optimized wouldn’t be so great at landing back on Earth then? But maybe it would work to land on the Moon. It seems like after going through the effort to get something up there, its a shame to waste it. Their proposed MEV could possibly play a role in moving the 3rd stage someplace to get refueled.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Good point about the vacuum optimization being a potential impediment to reuse – at least reuse that involves a landing under power.

    Another good point about potential refueling/reuse once in space. I don’t think Orbital-ATK has any such plans though. ULA is the one that wants to repurpose their ACES upper stages for extended use in or beyond LEO.

  • wodun

    Ya, they might not be planning for it but I hope they consider(ed) it. There could be some good synergy with their MEV product and other opportunities could open up with so many different actors focusing on the Moon.

    Orbital ATK have been trying to make the most of everything, like their use of Cygnus to perform tests after leaving the ISS. So I hope that attitude carries on.

  • Edward

    wodun and Dick,
    Vacuum optimization may reduce the efficiency of powered landing and reuse, but it is not necessarily a show stopper. The real problem is reentry from orbital speeds. It is hard to say whether solving the reentry problem is worth the effort, but SpaceX considered the option; at least it did six years ago: (next 45 seconds, “SpaceX Reusable Launch System”)

    ULA’s plans for ACES has me excited, because it means that commercial space companies have plans for the future. ULA even plans to modify ACES to make a lunar lander, Xeus, with which to ship materiel to and from the Moon, yet another vision of the not-so-distant future.

  • wodun

    Thanks Edward. I suspected that might be an issue but I never know for sure on this stuff because I don’t math well. And similar to the engine optimization, I am sure there are other issues that I am unaware of.

    Altius needs to be successful with their fueling port so that it can be licensed to as many companies as possible. Then maybe reuse in space will be more likely.

  • Edward

    I agree that inflight refueling will greatly reduce the cost of getting things into and around space. When the fuel needed to rise out of LEO does not have to be lifted with the payload, the cost of lifting the payload will fall even more.

    I imagine fueling depots in LEO, perhaps one for each spaceport, where satellites, probes, and manned and unmanned spacecraft are refueled for their higher orbit or interplanetary missions. Reused upper stages can become tugs for some spacecraft, perhaps taking satellites to geostationary orbit or geostationary transfer orbit.

    If the fuel can come from the Moon, a lot of savings can be had.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *