Key Spacecraft Motor Passes Test, Orbital Announces

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Orbital Sciences Corp. announced yesterday that it successfully tested a rocket that can propel astronauts to safety in event of an emergency on NASA's new spacecraft.

For the past 18 months, Orbital, a Dulles rocket and space technology manufacturer has been working along with Sacramento-based Aerojet on the escape pod for the next generation of spacecraft that will put humans on the moon for the first time since 1972. The spaceship will also be the forerunner to a planned manned flight to Mars.

This successful rocket trial "definitely means they are playing very well with big boys -- the Lockheeds, Boeings, Northrops," said Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research. "It's right up there in terms of space technology, and in some areas it might even be better."

In 2010 NASA plans to retire the space shuttle vehicles. Lockheed Martin is leading a team developing the replacement craft, named Orion.

"Technology has advanced very considerably," Nisbet said, referring to the age of the space shuttles. "It's like driving a 1970s Mercedes. No matter what you do to it, it's old."

The Orion will be similar to the three-man Apollo spacecraft -- a command capsule positioned on top of a rocket tower -- but will carry four to six passengers. Unlike the space shuttle, which lands on a runway, Orion's capsule will descend to Earth using a parachute.

"The space shuttle was designed to carry large cargo into space and marry it with people," said former astronaut Robert L. Crippen. "This vehicle that they're building is really designed to take us back to the moon."

Orion is expected to embark on its first manned flight by 2014, four years after NASA's three shuttles are set to retire. NASA is planning a moon landing by 2020.

The decision to create Orion is partly a reaction to the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, when seven astronauts died.

Yesterday Orbital and Aerojet tested the jettison motor that will push the rocket tower away from the command capsule in case of emergency. In a successful launch, the jettison motor will be used to separate the heavy tower from the capsule.

"It needs to work every time," said Pete Cova, Aerojet's executive director for solid rocket motor space programs. "It needs to work on a good day if it needs to get the astronauts clear and on a bad day if it needs to get them past a danger zone."

The ground test, which was conducted in Sacramento, was the first step toward a full flight test in September. Once completed, all the components of the escape pod system will be assembled by Orbital in Dulles.

Space flight is fueling much of Orbital's growth. The company stands to make $450 million to $500 million over the next 12 years from its role in the Orion program.

Orbital, with a niche in small satellites, has taken advantage of the space opportunities provided by the Bush administration, said Loren Thompson, an aerospace analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington.

"Orbital has been on aggressive path to expand its space expertise in every conceivable market," he said.

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