Orbital Sciences Corp. is eying a move into manned space flight, and that could bring more business to the company’s Chandler operations if NASA and the Obama administration are willing.
An expert panel appointed by President Barack Obama to offer options on the future of the U.S. space program has suggested that “routine” manned space missions in low-earth orbit — such as resupply flights to the International Space Station — could be turned over to private industry so NASA can concentrate on deeper space exploration.
It may take the new administration and Congress months to sort out the future path of the space agency. But if NASA decides to hand over more human space flight activities to private businesses, Orbital wants to be in on the action, said the company’s chief executive.
Chairman David W. Thompson made the comments in an interview following a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday for the company’s new Arizona Program Management Center in Chandler.
“It’s a logical extension of what we are doing,” he said, referring to the privatization of human space flight. “The government has been turning over more and more functions to the private sector ... In another 10 to 15 years, this will happen.”
So far, the Dulles, Va.-based company has limited itself to building small- to medium-sized launch rockets for commercial and defense satellites and cargo. The company designs and builds its rockets, including Pegasus, Minotaur and Taurus, at its Launch Systems Group in Chandler.
Thompson said Orbital also is pursuing contracts to build more target missiles for the National Missile Defense program, which would bring more work to the Chandler campus. And the company could build launch rockets for future climate-study satellites planned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said.
Depending on how many new contracts the company receives, Orbital officials could decide within 12 to 18 months if they need to further expand the Chandler campus, he said.
Orbital’s long-term possibilities for Chandler include construction of two more buildings, creating a 48-acre campus capable of accommodating 2,200 employees. Currently, the space firm employs about 1,450 in Chandler.
The new building at 3377 S. Price Road provides more room for about 300 Orbital engineers and managers to work on existing programs such as the Taurus II, a two-stage rocket that will lift supplies to the space station under a NASA contract beginning in 2011.
The Taurus II would have the capability to carry humans to the space station, which orbits 220 miles above the Earth’s surface, if it were topped off with a crew capsule, Thompson said.
Orbital estimates it could develop a human-capable rocket-capsule combination for $2 billion to $3 billion over four years.
The private program would eventually replace the space shuttles, which NASA plans to retire next year.
NASA is working on its own replacement system called Constellation, an Apollo-type arrangement with non-reusable components designed to return astronauts to the moon. But funding for that system is uncertain, and the Obama commission proposed that portions of it be scrapped.
Thompson said private industry could do some human space jobs faster and cheaper than the government.
“Private companies tend to be more efficient,” he said, adding that NASA could choose more than one private company to provide a “taxi” service to the space station to inject competition into the program.
To carry humans into space, Orbital would need to upgrade the Taurus II and design its own crew capsule using technology that has been around since the Apollo, Thompson said.
“It could look like a 21st century Apollo capsule,” he said. “These days, guidance systems are so good we could put it down by parachute in a lake instead of the ocean.”
Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn said Orbital’s activities are having a major economic impact on the city.
“We have no sports stadiums, but we’ve chosen to go in a different direction,” he said. “These companies bring a different kind of financial security to our city.”