Orbital Sciences is scrambling to find a reliable long term first stage engine for its Antares rocket.


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 or below. 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.

Orbital Sciences is scrambling to find a reliable long term first stage engine for its Antares rocket.

The NK-33 engine that powered Antares’ first flight was built decades ago by Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau and is no longer in production. Further, Orbital is uncertain about the quality of Aerojet’s remaining stockpile of 23 NK-33s, beyond those set aside for NASA’s CRS-1. Aerojet Rocketdyne is Orbital’s primary subcontractor and overhauls the old NK-33 engines into a configuration for Antares, dubbed AJ-26. Orbital officials say its only current alternative is the RD-180 engine made in Russia by NPO Energomash. But the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operates the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas V and Delta IV fleets, holds exclusive rights in the U.S. to buy the RD-180.

Over the last four years, Orbital has inquired about purchasing the RD-180 from ULA, RD Amross and Energomash. “We could never get to first base on that,” says Michael Hamel, the company’s senior vice president of corporate strategy and development. Requests for support from the Air Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress were also met with silence, company officials say.

What I find disturbing about this story is the complete lack of effort by Orbital, Aerojet, or ULA to build their own engines. Even if new NK-33 engines are made by Aerojet, they will be manufactured in Russia, as are ULA’s engines. Why can’t they do what SpaceX has done and make their own engines?

Share

25 comments

  • wodun

    Well, even if the engines would be made in Russia, they should fire up the production line if they see a market for Antares.

    I am sure the MBA that made the decision not to design engines in house had excellent reasons but it shows the difference between them and SpaceX in terms of business philosophy. Antares is intended to be a limited short term project that will turn a profit.

  • This type of mindset is why Orbital’s been running in place (or at best, very slowly) for the past few decades. Scavenging is not an effective strategy for growth. And I’m looking at you, Excalibur Almaz!

  • D. K. Williams

    Sounds more like a hobby than a business.

  • Tim

    Great question! Spacex is in it for many reasons I believe but $ is not its goal.
    Mars is the goal! And it shows by its willingness to take risks and its ee’s skill set.

  • NASA is an unreliable customer, and the market demand for Antares is not enough to justify that kind of investment.

    We all know SpaceX is not making economically rational decisions. We shouldn’t fault Orbital Sciences for being good stewards of their shareholder’s money. They are a public company, after all.

  • I’m not sure I or others agree with you when you say “We all know SpaceX is not making economically rational decisions.” For one thing, you really can’t speak for others. For another, the evidence suggests Musk is make many very rational, if risky, decisions, resulting in what looks like a great deal of business for his company. Consider, today alone he signed another deal, this time with Turkmenistan, to launch another satellite.

    For someone whom you claim is not making economically rational decisions, he sure looks like he is achieving a lot of economic success.

  • From the Wikipedia article on SpaceX. All of the figures quoted come with citations in the article.

    Since it’s founding in 2002, SpaceX has operated on about $1 billion, of which Elon Musk supplied $100 million, a matching amount from other private investors, and $400 – $500 million from NASA. At the end of 2012, SpaceX had $4 billion in contracts for 50 launches.

    In the business world, that’s known as an excellent ROI.

  • Kelly Starks

    >..Musk is make many very rational, if risky, decisions, resulting in what looks like a great deal of business
    > for his company. ..

    His busness, and his money, is all come from political manuvers and NASA. Orbitals always been more commercial, and don’t depend as much on political winds.

    And all the problems and losses of flights SpaceX has had due to their developing their own engines rather then securing production rights or purchase contracts of good engines.

  • Kelly Starks

    >..Wikipedia article on SpaceX..

    The numbers I heard are SpaceX has spent $1.2-$1.25 B since its founding. $825m on research. And they got $850m from NASA so far on the COTS and CCDev contracts, and theres a couple hundred million more they got from other NASA and DOD study contracts.

  • They have to actually launch the satellites before you can chalk it up as a win. SpaceX hasn’t flown a single primary payload. They haven’t even flown a fairing yet. Only government funds that kind of “business plan”. Capital markets demand quicker returns.

  • The point is that private space launch is lucrative. It works. Consider that 12 years ago none of this existed. Now Mr. Musk’s holdings in SpaceX are close on $1 billion. That’s wealth creation. And we have a new way to get off-planet. Quibbling over details is far less important than taking advantage of opportunities.

  • Pzatchok

    I’m actually sort of sad that with a billion dollars laying on the table that some company in the US at least try to build/copy the needed engines.

    Seriously, other than modern sensors and computer controls this is 1960’s tech.

    We have some ofthe most high tech machines and metals works in the world in the US and not a single one can find the time to try this out? For a piece of a billion dollars?

    Someone could lease the Russian design. Or how about using one of those 40 year old designs that got us to the moon? How about the Chinese design? French? Come on, someone must be willing to give one up for pride and price.

    I can see SpaceX’s engine suppliers stepping up and filling a need on this one. Just expand their facilities to include the new engines and bang they are making profit from two rocket companies.

  • As Kelly said above.. it’s at least half a billion dollars worth of research to develop a new design. It’s entirely possible that NASA will cancel Orbital Sciences’ CRS contract after just a few launches, and Antares can’t service much of the existing market for launches. The risk is simply too high to raise that sort of money from capital markets and angels don’t have that much bling.

  • Kelly Starks

    >..The point is that private space launch is lucrative. It works. Consider that 12 years ago none of this existed…

    Actually commercials have built all our lauchers, and Musk hasn’t

    >… Now Mr. Musk’s holdings in SpaceX are close on $1 billion. That’s wealth creation. ..

    Not when it all came from the gov handouts, and political kick backs. Wealth creation involves building wealth.

  • Dick Eagleson

    I can see SpaceX’s engine suppliers stepping up and filling a need on this one. Just expand their facilities to include the new engines and bang they are making profit from two rocket companies.

    Not quite. In the first place, SpaceX only has one engine supplier, And SpaceX’s engine supplier is… whadyaknow… SpaceX! I’m not saying Elon will never sell a Merlin to someone else, but It’s hard to see any real advantage to making a deal with Orbital at this point. Of course Elon’s business judgement is axiomatically a lot better than mine so, never say never. But the case for outside sales of SpaceX components, including Merlin engines, is not immediately obvious when SpaceX is likely to be capacity-limited for some time servicing their existing launch manifest.

  • Dick Eagleson

    The money to develop the Merlin came from Elon’s share of the PayPal sale to Ebay. SpaceX was founded in 2002 and had no significant government contracts of any sort until several years later. Dragon and F9 were developed with partly government funding, but the government got a deal as it would have cost NASA 10 times as much to do the same job in the traditional cost-plus way. There was, is and continues to be no “handouts” involved. The government buys goods and services and pays for them. The real handouts and political maneuvers are all to the benefit of the old-line aerospace firms. How else is one to explain the monopoly on national defense satellite launches ULA has long enjoyed even though all of its launchers depend on engines made by a hostile nation, Russia? In a politically rational world, SpaceX would have all that business because they are 100% U.S.-based and make all of their own major components. They even use American-made machine tools to do so. Fortunately, SpaceX is likely to displace ULA in this capacity over the next few years based on price. The additional national security benefits of entirely domestic-sourced launchers will just be gravy.

    As for Orbital’s being “more commercial” they made a good start at it, but quickly fell into the clubby ways of the old-line aerospace firms. Compared to SpaceX, Orbital builds very little of its vehicles in-house. Most of their vehicles rely for engines on surplus U.S. ICBM parts. The Antares uses refurbished, ex-Soviet moon rocket engines. Despite all this outsourcing and scrap scrounging, Orbital’s CRS contract will cost NASA at least 50% more per mission than SpaceX’s does. That makes Orbital less commercial than SpaceX by my lights. I understand that NASA wants to have at least two launch providers for CRS, but the prime beneficiary of this policy is not SpaceX.

    As for delays and losses of flights, the failed SpaceX flights were all their earliest flights. They’ve had a half-dozen successes since, including all the flights of the F9. As to the engines, by my count, there have been 55 Merlins flown and only two failures. Only one of these resulted in loss of mission – the very first SpaceX mission attempt. As a point of comparison, the AJ-26 engine Orbital uses on the Antares first stage (nee NK-33 for the Soviet N-1 moon rocket) has had 120 exemplars flown on four missions. All these missions failed and at least two of those failures were caused by the NX-33.

  • Kinda seems like you haven’t read anything about the development of the Merlin engine.

  • Dick Eagleson

    I have no idea what you mean by “primary payload”. Is a Dragon not a primary payload? If not, why not, and give three examples.

    The SpaceX satellite launch manifest where fairings are in the mix is all commercial birds except for a couple of USAF missions awarded earlier this year and a trio of German radar sats just awarded this week. It doesn’t look to me like it’s the government that’s backing Elon’s business plan, it’s mainly other businesses.

    As to the fairing question, no they haven’t done a faired launch yet. They’ve got one coming up in about 10 weeks, so we shall all shortly see. If it doesn’t work, you have permission to gloat. I think it’ll work fine. The fact the SpaceX design is pyro-free strikes me as shrewd engineering. Even companies with a lot of faired launch experience come a cropper now and then with pyro-separated fairings, as Orbital learned twice to its cost in recent times. At least if there is a fairing-related problem, SpaceX won’t be able to go through the finger-pointing and subcontractor recriminations of a heavily-outsourced outfit like Orbital. They’ll have no alternative but to make things right and quickly and on their own dime. That’s why I think it’s going to work.

  • Dick Eagleson

    No reply link on your response to my response above so I’ll put it here. Yeah, I have read quite a lot about the Merlin’s development. It’s been an on-going process, obviously, but my understanding is that the first two iterations of the Merlin, the ablative and regeneratively cooled versions, were largely worked up before CRS and Commercial Crew were factors. If you can direct me to sources that say otherwise, please do.

  • Dick Eagleson

    We all know Elon is not making decisions based primarily upon pleasing a bunch of Wall Street wonks on a quarterly basis. Wall Street has ceased to be anything much resembling a real equities market over the last 30 years as higher and higher percentages of total trading volume are initiated not by human beings, but by algorithms developed by a small cadre of stat/quant wonks who probably number, at most, in the low three figures. Running your business in ways that please these few guys should not be considered equivalent to exercising economic rationality. Economic rationality is ultimately decided by what works vs. what doesn’t. So far SpaceX seems to be working fine.

  • Dragon isn’t a primary payload because it isn’t a payload at all.. it’s SpaceX’s own vehicle. If you want to consider the stuff inside the Dragon as primary payload, sure, but so far there’s been precious little of that either.

    If it doesn’t work, you have permission to gloat. I think it’ll work fine.

    Is that what you think is going on here? I’m a SpaceX supporter. I want them to succeed just as much as anyone else. What I would prefer is if people actually bothered to learn what it is SpaceX has achieved, and how, and stop making premature or just outright false claims.

    The Merlin 1A, 1B and 1C turbopump was developed by Barber-Nichols, using work developed for the NASA Bantam and Fastrac programs.

  • Pzatchok

    Never believe a company when it says it doesn’t make money on R&D.

    It does otherwise its doors would have closed.

    The employees got paid
    The shareholders got paid
    The building owners got paid
    The local taxes got paid
    Suppliers get paid
    Sub contractors get paid
    All the bills get paid all during R&D.

    Any profit left over gets hidden in the books for tax purposes.
    Just so the company can go back and claim it now needs the contract to build the product or it will have never made a profit.

    There is huge amounts of cash to be made in R&D. Just play with the books better.

  • Pzatchok

    If SpaceX does anything like every other big company has ever done then it will just spin off a new company to supply what is needed.

    As for selling the Merlin engine. They don’t need to sell the Merlin engine, they can build and sell any engine they can get the lease rights to. Such as the NK-33 engines, if the Russian firm doesn’t want to make them and is willing to lease the design.

    Spin off companies are not always wholly owned by the parent company. Often they have many new investors who have interest in the product being manufactured. Like component suppliers who want to increase the need for their own products, or outside end user companies who want to see a solid supply of components.

    Lockheed has maybe 20 subsidiaries all building related components to its core business, SpaceX has no need to stay monolithic and keep to only doing one thing. It would end up a stronger company if it ended up supplying other companies with components.
    The only thing that remains to be seen is if those other companies want to compete against SpaceX or with SpaceX.

  • Kelly Starks

    Or anything about how little money Musk put into SpaceX. (About $100M, out of the $1.2B SpaceX burned through so far.)

  • Kelly Starks

    >== but the government got a deal as it would have cost NASA 10 times as much to do the
    > same job in the traditional cost-plus way. ==

    Really? And what would that job be?

    SpaceX did develop the Falcons adn Dragon for 1/100th (not 1/10th) what it would normally cost NASA to do the same — course they have a lot more failures then modern competitors, and tekr cost per pound to the stations 20% to over 400% more expensive to NASA then the shuttle (depending on the accounting rules you use).

    >== Fortunately, SpaceX is likely to displace ULA in this capacity over the next few years based on price. ==

    not at their prices and with their quality problems.

    ..and at least ULA gets most of their dev money for their commercial launchers – from commercial investors.

    >== Orbital’s CRS contract will cost NASA at least 50% more per mission than SpaceX’s does.

    Nope, not according to any audit I’ve seen – or NASA payment records/projections.

    >.. the failed SpaceX flights were all their earliest flights. —

    Nope pretty much all of them have had major problems. First Dragon flight to the station had a engine explosion and failed to deliver one of the 2 cargos on it. (And dragon had problems that would have ruined some of the cargo, had real cargo been carried.)

    > As to the engines, by my count, there have been 55 Merlins flown and only two failures.
    > Only one of these resulted in loss of mission – the very first SpaceX mission attempt. ==

    The first 2 were completly destroyed in the air due to engine problems, and the first dragon flight had a engine explosion that ment they couldn’t deliver their 2nd cargo without threat to the station.

    Getting late, calling it a night.

Leave a Reply

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