Armed with Science Saturday: Space Matters

When someone asks you if you want to go see a rocket launch, what else can you say except ABSOLUTELY.

Graphic: Artist’s rendering of Orbital’s Antares medium- class space launch vehicle. (graphic by Orbital Sciences)

Artist’s rendering of Orbital’s Antares medium-
class space launch vehicle. (graphic by Orbital Sciences)

Which, incidentally, is exactly how I responded when I was given the opportunity to get a (reasonably distanced) front row seat to the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket launch at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

As many of might already have noticed, space is sort of a big deal to me.  The chance to reach out and touch the stars.  To be a part of something greater than the world in which we’re tethered.  To move forward as a species.

Now that’s something I want to be a part of, and the Antares rocket launch was a way to make that happen.

So why is the Antares rocket such a big deal, you ask? Let’s break it down.

First of all, it’s a rocket.  Rocket = big deal.

This is no ordinary rocket.  This is one in a series of rockets that are being used – quite fiscally responsibly, I might add – to push the human race out of lower Earth orbit and into the Solar System.

Antares is a two stage vehicle, with optional third stage, that provides low-Earth orbit (LEO) launch capability for payloads weighing over 5,000 kg.

Antares is one of 10 projects with the same point and purpose: risk-reduction missions designed for easy resupply services to the International Space Station.  It has the added benefit of delivering substantial payloads into a variety of low inclination, low-Earth, sun-synchronous and interplanetary trajectories.

It has streamlined vehicle/payload integration and testing via simplified interfaces to reduce time from encapsulation to lift-off.

It can also accommodate major payloads, so it can carry more things than the average rocket might.  It’s also capable of launching single and multiple payloads.

So I guess you could say it’s a multi-tasking rocket.

Phil McAlister, NASA Commercial Spaceflight Division director says, emphatically, that the American aerospace industry is not on the decline, but rather it’s on the rise.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about America’s place in space and whether we can still do things in space that we want to do,” he says.  “I think [the Antares rocket] represents another step in that capability.”

And speaking of capability…

It’s low-cost, reliable access to space.

Let’s take a look at the statistics.  The Antares is a medium-class space launch vehicle designed by Orbital Sciences in conjunction with NASA.  It’s designed to provide responsive, low-cost and reliable access to space.

Getting ready to head to the launch pad, the Antares rocket hangs out with my new friend Larry long enough to snap a pic.

Getting ready to head to the launch pad, the Antares rocket hangs out with my new friend Larry long enough to snap a pic.

Getting ready to head to the launch pad, the Antares rocket hangs out with my new friend Larry long enough to snap a pic.

It’s liquid oxygen/kerosene fueled, so it incorporates both solid and liquid stages and flight-proven technologies to meet medium-class mission requirements.

According to Orbital, “These proven launch technologies, along with hardware from one of the world’s leading launch vehicle integrators, combine to provide cost-effective access to a variety of orbits for civil, commercial and military medium-class payloads.”

Basically, this is a cheaper way to get things into space.

Budgets are a big thing on people’s minds these days, and there’s no wonder.  It’s hard to balance the pursuit of space exploration and scientific innovation on a tighter budget, but thanks  to rockets like these, we have the opportunity to just that for a fraction of the cost.

Going green doesn’t just mean recycling your water bottles.

Mike Laidley is the Deputy Director for Antares for Orbital Sciences, and he says that the rockets are being built with a responsible budget in mind.  Some parts are even being used from other missions, re-purposed for the sake of fiscal responsibility, and even just common sense. Use what you already have is a good strategy when it comes to being efficient and affordable in many cases.

Rockets are really no exception.

“It’s certainly good to take an asset like an old ICBM and turn it into something productive, rather than just having it destroyed,” he explains.

The Department of Defense has a part of humanity’s space mission.

If you think the Department of Defense doesn’t have a hand in protecting our friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) skies then you would be wrong.  The DoD is involved in the space program in more ways than you would think.  From the science and engineering that goes into the equipment, to working on satellites and ballistic missiles, even laser technology, the Defense Department is an active participant in shaping the technological future.

The military in particular could benefit when it comes to having a leg (or booster) up in the area of aerospace.  However, the focus isn’t just on space.

“We have a number of strategic programs,” says Hal C Murdock, the ATK Director of Strategy and Business Development.  He’s also a former Navy pilot, so Hal has a personal interest when it comes to supporting our military forces.  He currently works in the defense and commercial department of the Aerospace group.  Hal explained that the relationship ATK has with Orbital Sciences Corporation (the Antares rocket-maker) and the Department of Defense matters not just to the aerospace industry, but also to our country’s defense.

“The most prominent of those [programs] is the Trident II D5 submarine launch ballistic missile program,” Hal explains.  “We produce all three solid rocket motor stages for the D5.  We also produced all three stages for the minuteman 3 solid rocket motor propulsion system for that strategic system.”

This is all very important for the strategic defense of our country, Hal says.  “We are also involved in missile defense.  A number of areas within ATK support the Missile Defense Agency.  We produce all three stages of the ground based, mid-core defense missile system.”

Currently, Hal tells me, they are working on a program called the large class stage for the Air Force.

“We’re getting ready to do a static fire, and what that means is that you put the rocket motor in a test stand.  Then we ignite it and test it on the ground before it would ever fly.  So for this program we have the first stage – the test stage for the large class stage.”

Now when you think about what’s large and what’s small, it might be a little skewed when you’re talking about rockets.  When we talk about large class stage we’re talking about a 92 inch diameter rocket motor.  It’s very big.  The first stage is over 100,000 pounds.

“It weighs a lot,” Hal aptly points out.  “So the Air Force, though a development program called the propulsion applications program, asked us to design and test a first stage and a third stage for this system.  So we’re going to be testing that in May.  So that’s one of the things we’re exercising; the capabilities of the company, all the way from preliminary design through propellant formulation and winding and casting the solid rocket motors.  It’s very exciting for us and it’s hopefully very exciting for the Air Force.”

But the coolest part about this has to be this bit:

A rocket like this one is going to the moon this summer.

Yeah, that’s right.  We’re going back to the moon.  Well, we’re sending rockets back to the moon.  Orbital is working on a high energy space launch vehicle known as the Minotaur V.

Photo: Minotaur V provides cost-effective support of small GEO and lunar missions. (Source: Orbital Sciences)

Minotaur V provides cost-effective support of small GEO and lunar missions. (Source: Orbital Sciences)

The Minotaur V (provided by the same people who brought us the Antares rocket) is a five stage evolutionary version of the Minotaur IV space launch vehicle (SLV) to provide a cost-effective capability to launch U.S. Government-sponsored small aircraft into high energy trajectories, including Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits (GTO) as well as translunar and beyond!

Translunar is a cool way of saying back and forth to the moon.  Now, I know there’s been a lot of “why haven’t we returned to the lunar surface in a while?” questions circling the internet (although I paraphrase, as Y U NO GO MOON is a little less loquacious).  Well the Minotaur plans to rectify that situation.  So when is this rocket supposed to be gracing the moon with its presence?

Sources say sometime later this year, as a matter of fact.

NASA has awarded a contract to the Orbital Sciences Corporation, managed by the Air Force’s Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW), to use a Minotaur V to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) Mission from the Wallops Island, Virginia (in late 2013). The Minotaur will launch the LADEE spacecraft into a highly elliptic orbit where it can phase and time its trajectory burn to the moon.

The Minotaur family of rockets are provided by Orbital Sciences and managed by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Space Development and Test Directorate Launch Systems Division located at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico.

Welcome to (what I believe is) the next generation of space exploration.  I cannot wait to see what we can accomplish.

This is just the start of what presumes to be a more fluid and effective transition from planet-to-solar system transitions that our space program has in store.  As I mentioned in a previous story of mine, there are some plans in place that look as far as a billion years out when it comes to space.  We still have a long way to go before Star Fleet Academy is seen in San Francisco, but I think Phil McAlister said it best:

(Graphic by Jessica L. Tozer)

(Graphic by Jessica L. Tozer)

Because when it comes down to it…


“This should not be NASA’s story.  This should be your story.  Told by you.” – Charles F. Bolden, Jr, NASA Administrator

And you know what?  He’s right.  This isn’t about watching a rocket leave the earth.  It’s about watching science in action.  It’s about moving forward as a species.

Stephen Hawking said, “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”

I’m an optimist, too.

This is about moving toward more advanced space travel capabilities, mighty defense systems and furthering our understanding of life, the universe and everything (beyond knowing the answer is 42, of course).  And that, my friends, is what makes this amazing science journey well worth it.

To the stars and beyond, Antares rocket.  We’re right behind you.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.


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