Rocketplane Kistler Says It Has New Strategic Partner in the Wings
Artist's concept of Rocketplane-Kistler's K-1 Orbital Vehicle.
Credit: NASA.

WASHINGTON - Rocketplane Kistler President Randy Brinkley said Sept. 25 that the Oklahoma City-based company already has found another firm willing to replace Orbital Sciences Corp. as prime contractor for the K-1 reusable launch vehicle.

"We're very comfortable with the new partner and think it's a good fit," Brinkley said.

Brinkley declined to identify Rocketplane Kistler's new partner but said that the unnamed U.S. company would take over Orbital Sciences' systems engineering and integration role on the K-1 and make a strategic investment "equal to or greater" than the $10 million Orbital had planned to bring to the table.

Rocketplane Kistler was picked by NASA in mid-August to receive $207 million under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to help finance development of the K-1 and conduct a series of international space station re-supply flight demonstrations by the end of the decade. A separate $278 million COTS award went to Rocketplane Kistler's rival, Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.

Rocketplane Kistler and Orbital Sciences had a strategic partnership that entailed Orbital serving as the K-1's prime contractor and investing $10 million to help re-start development of the rocket.

Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said Sept. 25 that the Dulles, Va.-based company was parting ways with Rocketplane Kistler over a disagreement about the company's business plans.

"We haven't been able to agree on all the elements of the business plan so we will not be part of the program going forward," Beneski said. "And of course as a result we will not be investing the $10 million."

Brinkley told Space News in a separate interview that the partnership fell apart last week after Orbital Sciences "conditioned their investment" on making design changes to the K-1 that Rocketplane Kistler found unacceptable.

Brinkley declined to detail what changes Orbital wanted to make to the K-1, but said they "involved a different configuration and different hardware, including non-U.S. hardware."

"It was a significant change to our K-1 baseline from what we agreed to with NASA in our Space Act Agreement," Brinkley said. "After consultation with NASA regarding the proposed changes and impact to our baseline, we decided to terminate the strategic relationship."

Beneski declined to comment further on the specifics of Orbital's and Rocketplane Kistler's disagreement.

Brinkley said losing Orbital Sciences as a strategic partner, while regrettable, would not prevent Rocketplane Kistler from meeting its obligations under the COTS Space Act Agreement it signed with NASA. That agreement makes continued NASA funding of the K-1 contingent upon Rocketplane Kistler's ability to meet regular programmatic, technical and financial milestones.

Rocketplane Kistler estimates that completing the K-1 and conducting its COTS demonstration flights will cost roughly $600 million. The company has pledged to NASA that it would match its investment roughly two-to-one with outside capital.

Brinkley said Rocketplane Kistler executives would be meeting with NASA officials Sept. 28 "to walk through where we are both programmatically as well as where we are on the financial end."