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. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

WASHINGTON ? Orbital Sciences Corp. said Dec. 14 that it isseeking NASA funding for a "blended lifting body" vehicle that wouldlaunch atop an Atlas 5 rocket to deliver four astronauts to the internationalspace station.

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

According to industry sources, Orbital Sciences plans toteam with VirginGalactic of New Mexico to market commercial rides on the planned spacecraftand conduct drop tests of the orbital space vehicle using Virgin'sWhiteKnightTwo 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 NorthropGrumman, which is identified in the press release as "the lead airframestructures designer."

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

Orbital's other CCDev 2suppliers 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 commercialsolution for astronaut transportation to and from the [international spacestation] that is safe, affordable and timely," Frank Culbertson, Orbital'ssenior vice president for human spaceflight systems, said in the press release."Our team is looking forward to sharing our ideas with NASA in greaterdetail and discussing how they can best be applied to helping the United Statescontinue to access the [international space station] in the safest and mostcost-effective manner possible, as well as supporting commercial ventures thatare seeking access to space."

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

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

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


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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.