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Orbital Pushes 'Cheap' Taurus Rocket

The iconic Space Shuttle has two launches left. The Delta II, workhorse for many of NASA's scientific missions and for medium-sized Pentagon and intel payloads, also faces retirement in fall next year.  Once the shuttle and Delta II are retired the United States will face the prospect of a serious decline in its ability to build, launch and maintain liquid propelled rockets.

Into that breach Orbital Sciences hopes to step with its Taurus II rocket, a medium payload system for NASA, the intelligence community and the Pentagon to use. Orbital hired the former leader of the Air Force's Delta 2 program, Mark Pieczynski, where he oversaw the launch of military spacecraft for the military and the intelligence community. Orbital clearly hopes he can work some magic to win a large proportion of the 50 medium class payload launches scheduled for the next decade. "We have been in discussion with SMC (Space and Missile Systems Center)," he said, as well as with the intelligence community.

NASA has already signed up use to use the Taurus 2 to supply the International Space Station, using the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Congress is watching all this closely and is worried about the decline in America's ability to build and maintain liquid propulsion systems. In the Senate's report for the 2011 defense authorization bill, there is language directing the Secretary of Defense to work with the head of NASA "to review and develop a plan to sustain the liquid rocket propulsion system industrial base. The review would include actions necessary to support current systems and sustain intellectual and engineering capacity to support next-generation systems and engines." It's due by June 1 next year.

The committee says it "is concerned that launch costs across the board are increasing as the need for new systems has decreased. It is essential that the U.S. maintain a domestic launch capability that can meet the mission assurance requirements of the Federal Government."

Currently, most DoD launches are handled by the EELV program, not known for its low costs or lack of cost growth over the last five years. EELV launches cost around $250 million a pop. Orbital's Pieczynski estimates his company can provide Taurus 2 launches for "quite a bit south of $100 million a launch." He would not get more specific. There are around three DoD launches for payloads of 10,000 pounds to 12,000 pounds each year, Pieczynski said.

The EELV program uses Delta IV and Atlas V rockets developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Like the Taurus 2 will, the Atlas 5 relies on a Russian rocket engine as its primary propulsion system. the Atlas 5 uses the RD-180; Taurus II will use the NK-33 engine, which Aerojet has modified and is now known as the AJ-26 engine. For those who may worry about U.S. dependence on Russian-built rockets, Orbital's man says there are 36 engines already in America, with another three dozen in Russia. "Once the supply gets down to a certain level," he says American companies have the right to co-produce the engine here.

In addition to using a lower cost rocket, Orbital also believes its Wallop Island launch site in Virginia offers greater flexibility because there is no competition with other launches, and it can both loft payloads to the space station, as well as into orbits that appeal to the intelligence community and to the weather satellite community. "You can reach a lot more locations from Wallop than you can from the Cape," Pieczynski told me.

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