Aerospace Company Unveils Details of Commercial Space Taxi Bid
Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo spreads its wings and chalks up mileage flying to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to appear at Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) AirVenture convention. The flying launch platform can support suborbital space tourism as well as toss small satellites into Earth orbit.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON ? Orbital Sciences Corp. said Dec. 14 that it is seeking NASA funding for a "blended lifting body" vehicle that would launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket to deliver four astronauts to the international space station.

The Dulles, Va.-based spacecraft builder disclosed the top-level details of its crew transportation concept in a press release announcing it had submitted a proposal in response to NASA's Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev 2) solicitation. Proposals were due Dec. 13.

According to industry sources, Orbital Sciences plans to team with Virgin Galactic of New Mexico to market commercial rides on the planned spacecraft and conduct drop tests of the orbital space vehicle using Virgin's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Virgin Galactic, however, is not mentioned in Orbital's Dec. 14 press release, which lists only the "major suppliers" that will "contribute major elements of the system."

Among the major suppliers is Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, which is identified in the press release as "the lead airframe structures designer."

Northrop Grumman owns Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, which is building WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo for Virgin to operate.

Orbital's other CCDev 2 suppliers include:

  • Thales Alenia Space, which would be responsible for the vehicle's pressurized crew compartment.
  • Honeywell and Draper Laboratory, which together would be responsible for human-rated avionics.
  • United Launch Alliance, which builds and operates the Atlas 5 rocket designated as the baseline launcher for the Orbital crew vehicle.

"We have submitted to NASA a well-considered commercial solution for astronaut transportation to and from the [international space station] that is safe, affordable and timely," Frank Culbertson, Orbital's senior vice president for human spaceflight systems, said in the press release. "Our team is looking forward to sharing our ideas with NASA in greater detail and discussing how they can best be applied to helping the United States continue to access the [international space station] in the safest and most cost-effective manner possible, as well as supporting commercial ventures that are seeking access to space."

Virgin, meanwhile, also is expected to announce this week a separate CCDev 2 bid led by Sierra Nevada Corp., the big winner in NASA?s first round of Commercial Crew Development awards earlier this year. The Sparks, Nev.-based firm garnered $20 million in CCDev 1 funds to mature its Dream Chaser orbital spacecraft, a six-passenger lifting-body vehicle based on NASA's HL-20 concept from the early 1990s that the company has been working on for several years.

NASA started the CCDev program in 2009 with $50 million in economic recovery funds. The agency awarded the first round of contracts in February to a mix of five new and established aerospace firms that are using the money to work on technology supportive of U.S. President Barack Obama's commercial space transportation vision.

In October, NASA announced it expects to award roughly $200 million next year under CCDev 2 to multiple contractors seeking to refine designs for launchers and spacecraft that would transport astronauts to and from low Earth orbit on a commercial basis.