ATK Body Language Hints at Russian Engine for Antares

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With ATK and Orbital Sciences Corp. set to merge early next year, the solid-propulsion giant is understandably sensitive to the shareholder concern over the Oct. 28 failure or Orbital's Antares rocket, a catastrophe likely caused by the AJ26 engines that power its first stage.

ATK told investors Nov. 17 that it still endorses the merger, though both companies have postponed a Dec. 9 shareholder meeting set to vote on the proposal until Jan. 27. The deal is now expected to close in February, and ATK says it has thoroughly reviewed Orbital's Nov. 5 recovery plan, including an accelerated effort to replace the AJ26—a liquid engine based on Russia's NK-33 and modified by Aerojet Rocketdyne for Antares (see photo).

Even before the launch failure, Orbital said it had selected a new engine, though the company has yet to publicly disclose the supplier. Among propulsion options considered were the NK-33, production of which may be restarted in Russia; a solid-motor solution proposed by ATK; and a variant of the Russian RD-180 that powers the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5.

But during a Nov. 19 investor update, ATK CFO Neal Cohen said something odd about Orbital's recovery strategy, including the new engine choice, citing “political risks” as one of the criteria used in ATK's recent assessment of Orbital's plan.

Later in the call, when asked about ATK's plans for new propulsion systems, President and CEO Mark DeYoung said the company is always looking for opportunities to demonstrate the merits of solid propulsion, citing a proposal to the U.S. Air Force and the company's role with Orbital in Stratolaunch, a commercial space venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

DeYoung also said that when it comes to liquid-engine technology, however, the U.S. launch sector has no alternatives to Russian propulsion systems in the near future and that it will take time to come up with other options.

“As much as the country may desire to have an alternative propulsion system which does not rely on Russian liquid propulsion, there is no solution available that I am aware of in the near-term which allows us to have a different solution, other than the solutions which are being used right now, which are Russian-based engines,” DeYoung said. "The one thing you have to understand here is this will take some time to work its way through."

American reliance on the NK-33 and RD-180 has come under fire in recent months, following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March. Since then, national security hawks have called for development of a domestic alternative—a development that the U.S. Defense Department appears reluctant to undertake.

With this in mind, ATK's comments become even more interesting when you consider that, among the AJ26 options Orbital was weighing, only the Russian solutions bring any "political risks."

Of those, restart of the AJ26 appears to be off the table. That leaves ATK's solid-motor proposal and possibly some variation of the RD-180. The latter was the subject of a lawsuit Orbital filed last year against ULA and Russian engine maker RD Amross in U.S. district court in Virginia, alleging antitrust violations over ULA's exclusive use of the Russian powerplant.

Orbital dropped the lawsuit in early 2014 and more recently reached a settlement with RD-Amross, according to an Oct. 23 Securities and Exchange Commission filing. But the company says it is still in talks with ULA over access to the RD-180 and that it has the option to reopen the lawsuit. 

In the meantime, DeYoung and Cohen say Orbital's recovery strategy appears solid. In addition to the accelerated reengining of Antares—to be complete in 2016—the plan consolidates Orbital's remaining ISS cargo runs to four from five  under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) agreement with NASA. To meet that commitment in the near term, Orbital also plans to launch its Cygnus cargo carrier on one or two non-Antares vehicles and utilize the vehicle's ability to carry larger payloads on its four remaining missions.

In addition, they said the overall financial impact to Orbital's cargo-delivery agreement with NASA is minimal under the plan, and the incremental risk to Orbital in competing for a CRS contract extention and contract follow-on is limited.  

"NASA remains committed to working with partners who bring affordable, innovative solutions to the marketplace," Cohen said. "When you combine execution of the recovery plan with NASA's continuing involvement and interest in affordable innovation and Orbital's ability to continue to deliver that, those factors together allow us to reach the conclusion . . . of limited impacts in the go-forward business and the go-forward competition."

 

 

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