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back to article Private space truck ready for ISS trip as soon as NEXT WEEK

NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation have announced that the private Cygnus space truck (PDF) will head off to the International Space Station no earlier than 7 January, on the system's first cargo resupply mission to the orbiting outpost. Following a launch abort on 19 December last year, Cygnus will finally head heavenwards …

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1.6 vs 1.9?

They are contracted for 33% fewer flights, carrying roughly 33% less cargo each time, and yet are getting nearly 20% more money than Space X? Is it just my shaky grasp of maths, or does this sound screwy to anyone else besides me?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 1.6 vs 1.9?

Nasa was obligated to encourage a competitive market place, so they gave contracts to the top two bidders rather than preferring just the one. The SpaceX bid was obviously much, much better value for Nasa and when these current contracts end you can expect that Oribtal will either have to seriously under bid SpaceX or their contract won't be renewed.

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Re: 1.6 vs 1.9?

Thanks, that explains a lot. Obviously the reason that no one can hear you scream in space is because even there you can still be choked by red tape.

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Re: 1.6 vs 1.9?

I was just doing the maths myself - Orbital works out at £118k per kg, while Space X is a mere £40k per kg. Assuming all flights are fully utilised.

And I thought Parcel Force was expensive

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Devil

Re: 1.6 vs 1.9?

More money for less? Put that down to US Government Contracts. Got more & better lobbyists? Then you get more money for a worse product/service.

I'd put it down to Orbital calculating how much money they'd need to be able to produce the level of return they need to satisfy their investors and pitching it to NASA. NASA, needing & wanting to get multiple launch providers going (and to do better prices than ULA - not hard, really), would cough up.

SpaceX, doing a MUCH cheaper (and better IMHO) rocket, didn't need to pitch it so high. Still, while Elon isn't in the business just for the money, I'm sure that some of his investors have done the sums and are quietly slapping their foreheads.

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Silver badge

Re: Oribtal will either have to seriously under bid SpaceX

Actually I'd expect both contracts to be renewed, possibly at the same relative rates. The government really doesn't like single source contracts. NASA probably saved more than the difference between the contracts on the administrative costs sole source would have involved. And that's before you get into the problems of Congress Critter Mo demanding information about why the competitor in his state/county/city was denied a contract.

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Re: Oribtal will either have to seriously under bid SpaceX

There is sense in having a backup supplier so you don't have to rely on just one. What if, heavens forbid, one supplier's system went tits-up? What if that was your only supplier? You need to keep two separate systems up and running just in case. Space stuff is not easy and can go badly wrong at any time.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 1.6 vs 1.9?

Orbital was originally not selected for COTS. When Rockeplane Kistler (see Wiki article: http://tinyurl.com/rnkd5) backed out, NASA asked if Orbital was still interested. As the AJ-26 were not part of Orbital's original proposal, among other decisions that were in place by Rockeplane Kistler that bailed, NASA was willing to pay for the differences between what Orbital originally proposed and what they had to work with.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Oribtal will either have to seriously under bid SpaceX

When the time comes, it may be that Orbital do get the contract renewed but I don't think it will be automatic. I strongly believe there will be other bidders, some of whom will offer a better deal even if they don't yet have the proven track record. Orbital's offering just isn't innovative enough, it's expensive and yet based on cobbling together scrap from Russian junkyards, at best what they offer is an interim solution not one on which a new generation of space exploration can be built.

What NASA will also be thinking about is that a truly competitive marketplace requires more than just two players (much as a true democracy requires more than two parties). If they can avoid the political interference, they'll probably want to give someone else a chance next time.

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Postponed, not aborted

The Dec 19 launch was postponed due to the ISS cooling problem so the focus could be on the repair spacewalks. It was the demo launch back in April that was aborted when a cable detatched early.

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Bronze badge

Commercial Orbital Transportation Services - hmm, I am used to a somewhat different meaning of COTS. Though that is also related to Federal Acquisition Regulation. Was that intentional on NASA's part, one wonders?

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As I remember from discussions years ago, yes. The problem back then was there was nothing on The Shelf, Cheap or not, to take Off. The acronym stuck but the words changed...

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Bronze badge

Common Off The Shelf, or garden variety launch vehicle. Bog common, much?

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Coat

Hmm...

May I suggest that the boffin in the second picture has written on his clipboard:

"1 (one) ACME rocket sled ATK Castor 30 - ship to Wile E Coyote, ...".

It has the anvil and bird seed in one pocket.

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Impressive...

Cygnus approaches the ISS in September 2103

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Terminator

Re: Impressive...

and they've been looking for time travel evidence....

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COTS is about commercial competition...

If you view it as equal handouts, it certainly wasn't. The two companies started from very different places, though. Orbital was in the small solid-rocket business and SpaceX was in the medium-large+ liquid rocket business. Orbital started with a MUCH larger product gap.

SpaceX was given much more time (NOT more money) to deliver. They were kept in the program even though they missed dates in the 2000s (NASA removed others). Orbital was coerced by NASA to get into COTS at a later date and needed to do accelerated development. That is why Orbital was given more money.

It turns out that Orbital's Antares rocket, while not human rated, has sufficient payload to put Dragon capsules up into LEO. Interesting...

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Silver badge

Re: COTS is about commercial competition...

NASA's decision on SpaceX was completely right, though, with hindsight.

As for Orbital/Cygnus, I'd be concerned that their engine supply is rapidly dwindling, those engines are Russian made (in the 70's) refurb jobs, and I'm not sure what they will use if/when the supply runs out.

SpaceX of course have their own engines, in fact, they have their own everything.

SpaceX launch tomorrow IIRC.

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Re: COTS is about commercial competition...

http://spaceflightnow.com/tracking/ is a handy list and generally stays current. That lists a Falcon launch for the 3rd, but no sign of a webcast on the SpaceX site yet...

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Gold badge
Meh

Re: COTS is about commercial competition...

"SpaceX was given much more time (NOT more money) to deliver."

Actually the original award to OSC was much smaller, due to it being the left over from the Rocketplane Kistler award, something like $170m from Spacex's $250m (presumably the "others" you were referring to) and got a later chunk (IIRC about another $300m for a test flight)

" They were kept in the program even though they missed dates in the 2000s (NASA removed others). Orbital was coerced by NASA to get into COTS at a later date and needed to do accelerated development. That is why Orbital was given more money."

Coerced? I don't think so. I'd say OSC saw a chance to hoover up some spare cash and reckoned they could get the job done by outsourcing the 1st stage to the Russians and the bulk of the payload carrier to the Italians, who did build 1/2 the ISS modules. Amazingly it turns out they were right.

"It turns out that Orbital's Antares rocket, while not human rated, has sufficient payload to put Dragon capsules up into LEO. Interesting..."

At roughly 2.5x the price of the Spacex cost? Not really.

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Re: COTS is about commercial competition...

I suppose that, if you decide to split the Orbital grant into two pieces, both of them are NOT larger than the SpaceX grant.

Orbital is a much smaller company than SpaceX, with a MUCH smaller capital-generating investor-group. Undoubtedly, they were swayed by the chance when NASA 'removed the failed RK configuration' and proposed transfer of the setup to Orbital. Orbital did NOT come up with the hardware, but they did successfully manage the project, including revamp of their Wallops Island (Virginia) launch area.

NASA's offer (including accelerated timeline) did come before Orbital's BOD accepted. This was not like Orbital answered an RFP with original research. Orbital should be credited with good project management, so far. They really aren't anywhere near as big as SpaceX, though.

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Gold badge

Re: COTS is about commercial competition...

"Orbital is a much smaller company than SpaceX, with a MUCH smaller capital-generating investor-group. "

Smaller than Elon Musk and a couple of VC houses?

"Undoubtedly, they were swayed by the chance when NASA 'removed the failed RK configuration' and proposed transfer of the setup to Orbital. Orbital did NOT come up with the hardware, but they did successfully manage the project, including revamp of their Wallops Island (Virginia) launch area."

Yes Orbitals expected first actual payload launch to ISS within 4 months of 1st launch is impressive.

"NASA's offer (including accelerated timeline) did come before Orbital's BOD accepted."

I presume you mean the offered contract for transport services before the Board accepted taking on the new launcher development.

So essential NASA said "Here's $1.8Bn if you can build a rocket for this much" and the board said "Yes" and then said "Now where do get a rocket design"

" This was not like Orbital answered an RFP with original research. Orbital should be credited with good project management, so far. They really aren't anywhere near as big as SpaceX, though."

Yes I'd say few companies can work the supplier directory or contractor paperwork for their size quite like Orbital.

But according to both the FT and Wikipedia I'd say they were pretty evenly matched. Both $1.x Bn revenue, both 3-4000 employees (actually I think OSC is bigger in there). There profit after tax is about $68m IE about 5.2% of gross and I can't say how that compares to Spacex because no one knows.

This is no David & Goliath contest either way round. I've always thought OSC is well into the whole govt contractor game as they do so many weapons systems and target drone systems.

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Re: COTS is about commercial competition...

Although SpaceX has yet to IPO (and Orbit has IPO'd), all SpaceX has to do is exceed a capital value of $1.4Bn to be 'larger'. Orbital is an established vendor of very-small solid rockets. They just never positioned themselves to do COTS until NASA contacted them with the remnants (including the Russian rocket plan) from RK.

SpaceX was given MUCH more time (but not more money). They used this position to use more VC than Orbital.

Both were given a substantial technology transfer from NASA. Yes, each go a nice $1BN+ contract to do the work, too. Although they are in for profit, they are showing major advances in cost-control for spacefilght. As an American Taxpayer, that makes me glad.

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Bronze badge

errr "Cygnus approaches the ISS in September 2103" did someone go into the future to take that photo?

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Orbital has enough stockpiled rockets for 16 launches...

An earlier comment advised that Orbital does not have a produced-new supplier for its rockets. That is correct. They DO have enough inventory for 16 launches, though. They will have to do something else for the 17th launch.

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Boffin

A few points.

The Merlin 1D has a T/W > than 150:1 (Spacex seem a bit coy about how much greater). However the AJ26 still holds the Isp crown.

IIRC the Russians said there's somewhere between 50 and 75 engines in the warehouse in Russia. How seriously Orbital wants to pursue Antares (yes that is the correct spelling for this LV) will depend on what they plan to do about this limit.

OSC claim they want to offer something in the Delta II size that ULA seem to have abandoned. It was popular, launched for about 4 decades with continuing upgrades and was pretty reliable IE a lot more engines needed than in the warehouse. time will tell if they are serious or if they are govt con-tractor who takes the money and runs. IIRC the NK33 is a oxidzer rich staged combustion engine and may use unfamiliar alloys and possibly interior coatings which would take time to reproduce in the US.

NASA awarded both transport contracts (which are different to the development contracts to build them in the first place) before any hardware had flown. BTW both OSC and Spacex have trousered substantial chunks of the cash for all their launches, although as OSC has not actually delivered anything to the ISS yet that seems pretty poor value for money. No doubt OSC have good explanation apart from bumping up the dividend payout.

The problem with only 2 launch providers is if one is shown to be fairly rough you'd like to cut them totally, but then the other is in a monopoly position, so you can't really cut either of them.

The ISS is going to be around to 2020 at least and 2028 is looking likely . It's going to need re-supply for a long time to come. At £118k/Kg that makes Atares launched bottled water the most expensive brand on the market. :- ) .

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Silver badge

Engines

Another drain on the engines is a new Soyuz launcher variant w/o the 4 strap-on boosters (the 2-1v) that now uses the NK-33. It finally launched on the 28th.

It seems to have about as much in common with the original Soyuz as the Atlas 5 has with the original Atlas. I.E. "they're both rockets with the same name."

http://www.spaceflight101.com/soyuz-2-1v.html

http://www.spaceflight101.com/soyuz-2-1v-first-launch.html

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Unhappy

Re: Engines

"It seems to have about as much in common with the original Soyuz as the Atlas 5 has with the original Atlas. I.E. "they're both rockets with the same name.""

It's pretty loose, although I think the Delta IV is worse. Obviously they were using the term "evolved" in the sense that we are evolved from something like a large rat.

Oops. The Russians have been talking about restarting NK33 production but they also seem to have developed a new engine (the RD193) as a backup plan.

Russianspaceweb reports there were about 80 NK33's made. Obviously an NK33 restart would benefit OSC

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Silver badge

The CASTOR 30 rolls on only eight castors. They missed a trick there.

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Anonymous Coward

Space truck

They should call it a "Thrasher". Thrasher's make great pickup trucks.

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Orbital's higher initial costs are being reigned in...

Remember that Orbital is competing in COTS. That means that NASA kicks off the business with cash, but they will be subject to market pressures. Orbital could just be in for the initial-cash-infusion, but they have risked their reputation quite a bit AND gained (to some, surprising) credibility in a possibly-larger market.

1) They will need a followon to the Russian rocket-engines, but they won't need it for several years.

2) Their deft handling of the project work here is a strong commodity. There are other 'approaches' to deriving cheaper/better delivery mechanisms.

3) As others have said, NASA wants competition.

No matter how it looks internationally, ULA members (Lockheed-Martin & Boeing) compete in other aspects of their business. COTS was a shot-across-the-bow of ULA. ULA does incredible things for unmanned probes, but they didn't have a successful role in COTS. When a company like Orbital can 'hit' on COTS (even at a higher price than SpaceX) and ULA cannot do-as-well, then ULA's stockholders hold feet-to-the-fire. I have to believe that SpaceX will 'sharpen' ULA and make it more cost effective, as well. If ULA sleeps too long, they could find themselves on the outside of a key business...

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3,300kg of cargo...

That's a lot of bottles of vodka.

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Anonymous Coward

Castor

fyi Castor is the French for Beaver. Just thought I would mention.

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