Orbital ATK negotiating lease for part of VAB

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The competition heats up: Orbital ATK has begun negotiations with NASA for possibly leasing part of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for use in connection with a military rocket.

Virginia-based Orbital ATK is one of two rocket companies that launch resupply missions to the International Space Station, but this deal would not involve those missions or that rocket, the company’s Antares. The Antares launches from NASA’s space port at Wallops Island, Va., carrying the Orbital ATK Cygnus capsule.

The new rocket that Orbital ATK hopes to develop and one day assemble in the VAB would be a medium- to heavy-lift rocket.The planned rocket currently referred to by the name the Air Force set for it, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class rocket.

It sounds like Orbital ATK is putting together a bid to compete for the Air Force rocket contract, and needs to get a handle on the costs for using the VAB at Kennedy in order to make the offer credible.


  • Dick Eagleson

    Current speculation seems to center on an Ares-1-like vehicle with one or two booster stages based on the Shuttle-size, but re-engineered solid booster segments Orbital-ATK is building for SLS along with an upper stage powered by a vacuum-optimized Blue Origin BE-3 engine. The fact that Orbital recently landed an Air Force contract to develop a vacuum-optimized version of the BE-3 lends credence to this speculation.

    So does the fact that SLS’s projected flight rate is so low, even if it’s never cancelled, that Orbital won’t be selling many SRB segments for that purpose. Thus, Orbital has a considerable incentive to find ways to use more segments produced at marginal cost.

    Using the VAB and an MLP means also using the NASA crawler-transporters that were recently upgraded to handle SLS and, of course, using the only remaining launch facility where these other items can be employed, namely Kennedy’s LC-39B. NASA has said it will share SLS’s home pad with commercial users. Looks as though Orbital aims to be the first – and perhaps only – such time share.

    The Ares-1 famously suffered from vibration issues. This new rocket won’t carry people, but national security satellites probably don’t appreciate a cement-mixer-esque ride to orbit any more than human bodies do. Perhaps Orbital will dodge the worst of the vibration issue by using two booster stages, each based on two SRB segments, instead of a single booster stage with four or more segments.

    The interest in the VAB and mobile launch platform (MLP) stems from the fact any EELV-class vehicle based on SRB segments as lower stage booster(s) will be a lot heavier than any comparable liquid-fueled vehicle. The beast must be stacked from mostly heavy parts and national defense payloads require vertical integration with their boosters anyway.

    I’m dubious about the long-term viability of this whole scheme, but if it works out, Orbital could conceivably take an additional VAB high bay and MLP off NASA’s hands a few years hence if the launch cadence becomes sufficient to require this. It’s always good to see expensive sunk-cost government facilities repurposed to support commercial endeavors.

  • Edward

    I mostly agree. Where I differ is that a satellite can be designed to withstand vibrations in the 20Hz range, but a human cannot. Human internal organs have their natural frequencies in this order-of-magnitude range, so they could amplify the vibration and the bumping and rubbing with each other and cause terrible, unsurvivable internal damage.

    Depending upon the amplitude of the Ares-1 vibration (a solid rocket motor can act like a pipe in a pipe organ) and whether current satellite designs can withstand such vibration, they may not have to “re-tune” the rocket motors by using fewer segments than Aries 1 used.

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