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Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems: Cargo Ships to the ISS

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold spotted a space station-bound Cygnus cargo vessel passing over a crystal-blue atoll in Indonesia before it arrived at the orbiting lab on Thursday (May 24).
(Image: © Ricky Arnold/NASA/Twitter)

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS) is a private entity that holds a contract with NASA to fly unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station. NGIS was formed in 2018 but has a long history in aerospace; it is the result of several purchases and mergers of previous companies. 

Its parent company, Northrop Grumman, was itself created when the Northrop Corporation bought Grumman Aerospace in 1994. According to a company timeline, since World War II, Northrop built many fighters and bombers; Grumman also built military aircraft, as well as business jets, and was the chief contractor for the Apollo lunar module. In 2007, Northrop Grumman bought Scaled Composites, the builder of SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spacecraft to enter Earth orbit. Northrop Grumman also is the lead contractor for the James Webb Space Telescope that is expected to launch in 2020.

On June 5, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission approved Northrop Grumman's acquisition of Orbital ATK, a private spacecraft company with NASA contracts to deliver payloads to the International Space Station, according to a news release. Orbital ATK was renamed Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), which is the fourth business sector of Northrop Grumman. The other three are Aerospace Systems, Mission Systems and Technology Services, according to Sandra Erwin in a article provided by SpaceNews.

Orbital ATK's Antares rocket launched a Cygnus cargo craft toward the International Space Station on Nov. 11, 2017. (Image credit: Patrick Black/NASA)

Legacy of projects

Orbital ATK was formed in February 2015 in a merger of Orbital Sciences Corp. and Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The companies had previously worked together in many capacities, including Orbital's Antares rocket, for which ATK provided solid rocket motors for the upper stage. ATK's rocket boosters also safely delivered the space shuttles to orbit, except for one catastrophic failure in 1986 that led to the death of seven astronauts on board space shuttle Challenger. ATK made design changes to the boosters in the wake of the disaster.

ATK was one of the contractors working on NASA's Constellation program, which aimed to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond. ATK constructed the first stage of the Ares 1 rocket that would take the astronauts aloft. The program, which was conceived under President George W. Bush, was cancelled shortly after President Barack Obama took office. (NASA has now resumed a moon-focused policy under president Trump, although it will use a rocket known as the Space Launch System to get there.) 

Orbital Sciences Corp. was the original company that developed the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, designed to deliver pressurized crew supplies, scientific experiments and other unpressurized cargo to the space station. Orbital also specialized in launching small satellites. The company's formal relationship with NASA began in 1983 when the firm signed an agreement to build a Transfer Orbit Stage vehicle that was eventually used during a launch of the space shuttle Discovery. [See Photos of Orbital's Cygnus and Antares

By 1991, officials from Orbital signed an $80 million deal allowing NASA to use the company's Pegasus rocket to deliver small payloads into orbit. Pegasus — a winged three-stage rocket designed to fly to low-Earth orbit — was the first privately developed space launch vehicle. The aerospace firm had also signed deals with the U.S. Air Force, Japan's Broadcasting Satellite System Corporation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Orbital Science's initial $1.9 billion deal with NASA required it to fly eight unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station using Antares and Cygnus; in 2016, Orbital ATK signed a second agreement for more launches between 2019 and 2024. (The value of this second contract was not disclosed, although NASA said it is paying up to $14 billion overall for contracts awarded to Orbital ATK, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.)

Cygnus comes equipped with two sets of solar arrays on either side of the service module. The arrays power the command control and communications hardware of the robotic capsule, once launched and deployed. The Antares rocket — formerly called the "Taurus II" — is a two-stage launch vehicle designed to deliver cargo to low-Earth orbit. When upright, the rocket is 131 feet (40 m) tall, and the rocket's dual AJ26 rocket engines are designed to provide 680,000 pounds of thrust. Antares' first test launch occurred on April 18, 2013.

Pre-merger, Orbital Sciences had a single Cygnus failure when one of its spacecraft exploded just after launch on Oct. 28, 2014, likely due to a problem with the Russian engines in Antares. Flights resumed on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in December 2015. As of mid-2018, Cygnus has made 10 flights on both the Antares and Atlas V rockets, at a pace of approximately two a year.

How Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft service the space station. See how Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rockets works in this infographic. (Image credit: Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

Conditions of merger

As a condition for the approval of the merger, the FTC ruled that the company would have to supply solid rocket motors "on a non-discriminatory basis under specified circumstances," Erwin reported. 

Ensuring competition in the solid rocket motors industry is a key issue for the Defense Department because only two manufacturers had remained in the business, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne, according to Erwin. The Air Force plans to acquire a new strategic intercontinental ballistic missile intercontinental ballistic missile, the so-called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, with Northrop Grumman and Boeing competing for the award. The intent was for both Orbital ATK and Aerojet to supply both prime contractors. The FTC decision requires Northrop Grumman to separate its solid rocket motors business with a firewall so it can continue to support Boeing.

The merger came about as both companies moved to increase their NASA and military space business, Erwin wrote. Orbital ATK in April unveiled a new intermediate to heavy lift rocket that was designed deliberately to compete for national security launches. Northrop Grumman recently secured a sole-source Air Force contract to develop next-generation missile-warning satellites.

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