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NASA Finalizes Ares I Upper Stage Engine Contract

Tossing Orion: NASA Performs Drop Tests, Rocket Checks for Next Spaceship
A concept image of Ares I crew launch vehicle. (Image credit: NASA/MSFC.)

WASHINGTON -- NASA has signed a $1.2 billion contract withPratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to develop the J-2X engine the U.S. space agencyneeds to power the upper stages of its Ares I crew launch vehicle and Ares Vheavy-lift rocket.

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif. hasbeen working on the engine, an updated version of the Apollo-heritage J-2,since June 2006 under a temporary contract awarded without a competition. Thatcontract called for the company to start work on five development versions ofthe engine followed by two certification engines.

"This is huge," Scott Horowitz, chief of NASA'sExploration Systems Directorate, during a Monday teleconference withreporters on the new contract. "It's a big deal that we now have the J-2Xcontract signed and ready to go because it's a big piece in getting this rocketready to fly."

NASA's AresI rocket is a two-stage booster designed to launch NASA's capsule-basedspace shuttle successor - the Orion Crew ExplorationVehicle - into low-Earth orbit. The larger Ares V, meanwhile, is slated tohaul heftier payloads into space such as cargo, rocket engine stages forMoon-bound missions, lunar landers and other hardware. Both the Ares I and AresV rockets will rely on J-2X engines to power their second stages.

With the new contract, NASA has added one additionaldevelopment engine to its order, for a total of eight.

Mike Kynard, NASA?s J-2X program manager, told reporters thatbuying an additional development engine would allow NASA to begin its testingprogram sooner and conduct more tests than previously planned. Kynard said some280 tests are planned between 2010 and late 2012, when NASA expects to conductthe first test flight of a full-up Ares I rocket and an unmanned Orion CrewExploration Vehicle. Orion?s first crewed flight is expected to occur noearlier than September 2013, NASA officials added.

With the announcement of the J-2X contract, NASA moved astep closer to its goal of having the entire Ares I rocket under contract bythe end of 2007.

"We needed to press forward so that we could stillharvest some of the experience from Apollo," said Jeff Hanley, NASA'sConstellation program manager for the agency's new manned spacecraft, addingthat J-2X engineers sought input from Apollo program veterans well-versed inthe new engine's J-2 predecessor. "That's really been a treat, I think,for the team?to be able to go back and interact with that generation."

Steve Cook, manager of the Exploration Launch ProjectsOffice at NASA?s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., said theagency expects to finalize a contract with Alliant TechSystems by mid-Augustfor the development of Ares I?s solid-rocket-booster-based main stage. Similarto Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Alliant TechSystems got started on its AresI work last year under a temporary $120 million contract signed in late 2005. 

By late August, Cook said, NASA should be ready to announcewhich team it has selected to build the Ares I upper stage. That competition ispitting Boeing against an Alliant Techsytems-led team that includes Orion primecontractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

A separatecontract for the rocket?s avionics system, or instrument unit, is slated foraward around early December, he said.

SPACE.comstaff writer Tariq Malik contributed to this story from New York City.


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Brian Berger

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.