Northrop Grumman said it has a backup plan to fulfill the International Space Station resupply contract if the war in Ukraine continues to disrupt the supply of Russian engines and Ukrainian booster cores for the company’s Antares rocket.
The company has material in its inventory for two more Antares resupply launches – currently scheduled for August and early 2023 – but needs engines and booster tanks imported from Russia and Ukraine for additional Antares flights.
NASA announced in March an award to Northrop Grumman for six additional cargo missions to the International Space Station, beyond the next two Antares flights already under contract. Northrop Grumman has launched 17 cargo missions to the space station using the company’s Cygnus resupply freighter under two commercial resupply services contracts, with eight more Cygnus flights now underway.
Kathy Warden, president and chief executive of Northrop Grumman, said on an April 28 earnings call that the company was “certainly exposed” to the fallout from the war in Ukraine on NASA’s resupply contract.
“We have what we need for the next two launches,” Warden said. “There is therefore no immediate disruption, and we have a plan in place to use other sources if necessary, beyond these two launches.”
Warden did not discuss backup options available to Northrop Grumman, but the company has launched Cygnus cargo missions on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket in the past. A company spokesperson declined to comment further beyond Warden’s remarks.
“We prefer to keep the relationship between Russia and the United States around the space station intact, and that’s what these rocket engines are for – to transport cargo to the International Space Station,” Warden said. “But we are working closely with NASA to make sure we follow the US government’s lead in this case.”
The Biden administration has limited imports of Russian products into the United States, but the impact of the order on a critical civilian space program — such as space station resupply — is unclear. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, said in March that Russia was stopping the export of rocket engines to the United States.
The ULA Atlas 5 rocket, used for US military and commercial satellite launches, is powered by a twin-nozzle Russian RD-180 main engine. But ULA says it has received all the RD-180 engines it needs for the remaining 24 Atlas 5 flights until the rocket is retired in favor of the next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle, with all American engines.
The Antares rocket uses engines from the same family as the RD-180. The Antares first stage is powered by two single-chamber RD-181 engines.
The RD-180 and RD-181 engines are produced by NPO Energomash in Khimki, Russia. The main stage of Antares is built by Yuzhmash in Dnipro, Ukraine.
“The primary means of launching Cygnus is on the Antares rocket,” said NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones. “Northrop Grumman has the ability to launch Cygnus on a different launch vehicle and has done so in the past. Any change from Antares to a different launch vehicle would be worked closely between NASA and NG.
All of ULA’s Atlas 5 rockets are sold to customers. ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket are the only other U.S. vehicles in service, or about to debut, with the lift capability to carry a Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship into orbit.
Orbital ATK, which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018, has already redesigned the Antares rocket to accommodate a new type of engine. The company chose the RD-181 engine to replace the AJ26 engine, also built in Russia, after an investigation concluded that the AJ26 was responsible for the explosion of an Antares rocket seconds after liftoff in 2014.
The RD-180 and RD-181 engines have never failed in flight on the Antares or Atlas 5 rockets.
SpaceX and Sierra Space, formerly Sierra Nevada Corp., are NASA’s other two cargo transportation providers for the space station. SpaceX has launched 24 cargo missions to the space station using its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, while Sierra Nevada is developing the Dream Chaser spaceplane that will launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket the next year.
NASA gave SpaceX a contract extension for six more Dragon cargo missions earlier this year, at the same time the agency ordered six more Cygnus flights from Northrop Grumman.
Sierra Space has three Dream Chaser cargo missions under contract with NASA.
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