Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I'm Full of Bull

My cynical prediction from earlier about NASA's choice for COTS hasn't come to fruition. But I'm happy that NASA made the right choice (in my view) by picking the Orbital Sciences team and their Taurus II launcher.

Orbital has never been a company to fit within a paradigm. They're too big to be considered "NewSpace" but too young and too small to fit in with the major aerospace giants. Likewise, Taurus-II is a paradigm-breaking vehicle. The engines were built for the Soviet lunar program but never flown. The tanks have heritage with the Ukrainian Zenit launcher. The upper stage is an all-new solid from ATK. It's a Delta II-class vehicle designed from the ground up with low costs in mind. Even the launch site (Wallops Island) breaks the business-as-usual paradigm.

In teaming with Alenia Spazio, Orbital hopes that the Cygnus spacecraft will be able to deliver and return cargo to and from the space station. My biggest question is how Orbital's team plans to provide thermal protection for Cygnus when it re-enters the earth's atmosphere, and how they intend to recover it after the mission is complete.

The selection of the Orbital team and the Taurus II + Cygnus system represents a bold gamble by a firm that has pulled off its fair share of tech miracles. While Orbital has a recent reputation for being risk-averse, the new vehicle hearkens back to the Pegasus days. I still think it represents less risk than Falcon 9 + Dragon (which admittedly has more performance potential than Taurus-II + Cygnus.)

NASA's COTS officials have also shown excellent judgement in their selections for COTS. The original pair of COTS contenders (Falcon 9 and K-1) was a mixture of moderate-to-high risk and extremely-high risk. By dropping Rocketplane-Kistler and picking up Orbital (although sticking with the same first stage engine, as fate would have it,) NASA traded a lot of risk for the experience of a seasoned team.

I wish the best of luck to both SpaceX and Orbital in engineering the future. America is going to need COTS sorely as the shuttle era draws to a close.