Med-Lite Solution Still Eludes NASA

Med-Lite Solution Still Eludes NASA

By WARREN FERSTER Space News Staff Writer

WASHINGTON-NASA appears to be coming up empty handed in its search for a low-cost rocket capable of launching medium-sized science payloads.

One such effort, NASA's Med-Lite launch services program, was intended to fill a gap in capability between Orbital Sciences' Pegasus rocket and Mc- Donnell Douglas' Delta 2 rocket. Both companies teamed up to win that con- tract last March with an offer that included a new rocket called Delta-Lite.

But after nearly a year of negotiating, NASA and McDonnell Douglas are about to sign a contract that leaves open the question of whether Delta-Lite will ever get built. All three payloads identified to date under the Med-Lite contract are slated to fly on a stripped-down Delta 2 rocket.

And even as the Delta-Lite faces an uncertain future, NASA is shying away from another proposed rocket that would have a similar capability.

Agency managers, wary of risking U.S. government-funded payloads on unproven rockets, have nixed a plan to launch a low-cost lunar orbiter on the maiden flight of an upgraded version of the Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle (LMLV).

Lunar Prospector, which is being built by Lockheed Martin, was slated to fly aboard the LMLV-2, a more-powerful version of the company's LMLV-1 rocket, in late 1997.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Evan McCollum said he was unaware of NA- SA's decision regarding the Lunar Prospector launch. He said the LMLV-2 development program remains on course.

But Alan Binder, Lockheed Martin's principal investigator for Lunar Pros- pector, said he was informed of NASA's decision Feb. 8. "We just bought the thing and now this requirement comes down," he said. The LMLV-2 purchase was being arranged between separate operating units of Lockheed Martin, he said.

Binder said Lockheed Martin budgeted S25 million for the Lunar Prospector launch. The options that fit within that ceiling are launching on Orbital Sci- ences' Taurus rocket or delaying the mission until Lockheed Martin can demonstrate the LMLV-2 with a commercial payload, possibly a remote-sensing satellite being built for Space Imaging Inc. of Thornton, Colo., he said.

"What if we have to delay six to eight months? " Binder asked. "Then what do we do? Stand there and twiddle our thumbs? You can't because it costs money. We can't just say 'Everybody go on vacation for six or eight months.' "

Another alternative might be the U.S. Air Force's Titan 2, a converted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that two years ago launched the U.S. Defense Department's Clementine satellite to the moon. The Air Force which paid Lockheed Martin $660 million to convert 14 of the ICBMs to space launchers, recently told NASA it has two Titan 2s available for NASA missions in the 1997-1998 time frame, according to Charlie Arcilesi, acting director of the launch vehicles office at NASA headquarters.

Taken together, the Delta-Lite and LMLV-2 issues illustrate the quandary NASA has found itself in as it seeks to reduce the cost of getting payloads into space while minimizing the risk to its investments in scientific satellites.

The agency is in the midst of a comprehensive study looking at these and other issues related to the procurement of launch services. The study, led by Dan Mulville, NASA's chief engineer, was started last year after several small rocket failures. The findings are due to the NASA administrator in about six to eight weeks, Mulville said.

Despite NASA's attention to the problem, members of the scientific community are growing anxious about the future availability of low-cost, medium-sized launchers that would enable the agency to carry out small, inexpensive space exploration missions-the only kind of new exploration missions currently getting funding.

These missions were precisely what NASA had in mind with Med-Lite. The target cost for Med-Lite rockets was half that of a Delta 2, which is in the neighborhood of $55 million.

In addition to Delta-Lite, McDonnell Douglas Aerospace of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., offered an enhanced version of Taurus and the watered-down Delta 2 for the Med-Lite contract, which includes five firm launches and nine options. Taurus would handle the smallest Med-Lite payloads while the stripped-down Delta, or Delta 730(}series rocket, would take care of the largest. According to documents pre- pared by NASA, Delta 7300-series rockets do not come close to meeting the cost target for the Med-Lite program.

One of the identified Med-Lite payloads, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, is in the Delta-Lite class, but will fly instead on a Delta 7300-series rocket, said Karen Poniatowski, manager of new programs and integration in NASA's launch vehicles office. McDonnell Douglas gave a discount price for that launch because Delta-Lite could not be ready in time to meet the mission's late 1998 launch date, Poniatowski said.

But Poniatowski acknowledged that the future of Delta-Lite is in doubt at this point, a fact industry sources have attributed to NASA's unwillingness to commit enough payloads to the new rocket to make its development worthwhile.

NASA had hoped to take advantage of planned commercial rockets under the Med-Lite program and was expecting more bids than it received, Poniatowski said. Lockheed Martin, for example, declined to bid because it could not meet NASA's requirement for a rocket capable of launching a pair of missions to Mars in 1998 and 1999, she said.

Anne Toulouse, a spokeswoman for McDonnell Douglas, said her company has met NASA's requirement for Med-Lite without committing to development of the Delta-Lite. "However, we have insured that there is flexibility in this contract so we can develop Delta-Lite when it makes economic sense," she said.

Meanwhile, NASA's decision not to fly Lunar Prospector on the maiden launch of the LMLV-2 comes as Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space of Sunnyvale, Calif., is struggling to overcome the failure of the LMLV-l in its maiden flight last summer.

NASA spokesman Jim Cast said Feb. 7 that Lockheed Martin must conduct a successful test flight of the LMLV-l before that booster is entrusted with any NASA payloads. Lewis and Clark a pair of NASA remote-sensing satellites, are slated to fly this summer on LMLV-l rockets.

McCollum said the test launch is one of a range of options under consideration by Lockheed Martin and NASA.

Lockheed Martin's LMLV launch contracts for NASA payloads are in a category called indirect purchases, where the spacecraft supplier takes responsibility for launch services. That procurement strategy, along with direct procurements like Med-Lite and purchases of Pentagon rockets like the Titan 2, are all under review as part of NASA's comprehensive study on expendable launch vehicles.

NASA is also mulling the future of Delta-Lite as part of the study, Poniatowski said. She added, however, that most of the mission proposals coming in from the science community require rockets that are on the upper end of Delta-Lite's advertised capability. Under these circumstances it may make more sense to use Delta 7300-series rockets and find secondary payloads where there is excess capacity.

One likely outcome of the review will be a new procurement system in which rockets will be assigned reliability ratings based on their past launch record, Mulville said. These ratings will be a factor in determining which pay- loads fly on what rockets, he said. Launch vehicle manufacturers bidding for NASA launch contracts will also be required to meet certain minimum quality standards as determined by a third party, he said.

Staff writer Ben Iannotta contributed to this article.
Reprinted with premission of Space News Volume 7 Number 6 February 12-18, 1996


Wednesday, 31-Dec-1969 18:00:00 CST