Thursday, February 17, 2011

Report: NASA could save money with Minotaurs

The Kennedy Space Center-based program that oversees launches of NASA and other government science satellites could save money by using excess ballistic missiles for some smaller-class launches, the agency's watchdog reported today.

Minotaur IV rockets, which utilize government-furnished solid rocket motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper missiles and are launched by Orbital Sciences Corp. are estimated to cost about $63 million per launch, according to NASA's inspector general.

In comparison, SpaceX's Falcon 9 would cost $141 million and United Launch Alliance's Atlas V $264 million.

The Falcon 9 likely won't be certified to launch the agency's science payloads for several years, and any technical problems could delay missions and increase costs. NASA's options for smaller rockets are more limited because the Department of Defense is no longer using ULA's Delta II, which has launched most of NASA's smaller satellites. 

In response to the report, NASA's Science Mission Directorate said the KSC-based Launch Services Program already considers using Minotaurs, but that doing so could threaten the viability of the commercial launch industry. It said the Office of Inspector General's report had corrected significant inaccuracies but still included "inaccuracies and inconsistencies in cost estimates."

Read the report here.

SpaceX offered the following response disputing the report's findings:

"The IG’s cost estimates for Falcon 9 launches are ridiculous," said company spokeswoman Kirstin Brost. "It’s almost three times our base price for a commercial launches -- $49.9 million -- and it’s more than what NASA is paying to launch both the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, including all of the work to integrate with the International Space Station, under the CRS contract.
"No one should worry about SpaceX having trouble meeting the certification schedule. The Launch Services Program is already assessing Falcon 9 for CRS, giving us a head start on the process. SpaceX’s track record of consistently beating expectations is unmatched: in the 8 years since SpaceX was founded, we’ve developed and launched the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon, and we’ve built launch sites at Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein with one at Vandenberg on its way."
IMAGE:  On April 27, 2010, Orbital Sciences Corp. successfully launched the first Minotaur IV rocket in support of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2) program. The Minotaur IV rocket is the newest in the Minotaur family of launchers that Orbital produces for the U.S. Air Force under the Orbital/Suborbital Program-2 contract.

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