Two aerospace firms will revive a rocket capable of carrying small satellites to space, but officials say blastoffs from Vandenberg Air Force Base depend on future customers’ needs.
Lockheed Martin Corp. and Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) announced Thursday that they have teamed together to resurrect the Athena rocket, which debuted at Vandenberg in 1995 and has flown seven times from three states.
“The Athena launch vehicle family offers low-risk, reliable launch services at an affordable price,” said John Karas, a Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company vice president. “Athena combines both companies’ heritage and expertise in launch systems, and makes key system upgrades to provide an enhanced product, skill set and performance capabilities to meet market needs.”
Al Simpson, Lockheed Martin’s Athena program manager, noted that Athena is “fairly portable,” and if a customer needs the type of launch Vandenberg offers, the firm could accommodate the request.
“We do want fly out of Vandenberg,” Simpson said. “This is the early stages.”
Athena, which first had the name Lockheed Launch Vehicle and Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle before being christened with the mythological Athena, was the first vehicle to actually launch from the former shuttle pad on south Vandenberg
Space Launch Complex-6, initially built in the 1960s for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and later for the West Coast space shuttle, was notorious for its lack of launches until Athena ended the streak of programs that were canceled before flights.
But SLC-6 is now home to United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket, so Athena would need a new locale if it returns to Vandenberg.
As a solid-fueled rocket, Athena’s launch pad needs are fairly austere, so the firm wouldn’t require the huge gantry that Central Coast residents have become familiar with across Vandenberg’ landscape.
Instead the Athena needs a facility with “low footprint,” Simpson said, much like Space Launch Complex-8, the site operated by Spaceport Systems International, a division of ITT.
The SLC-8 site could support the Athena rocket, but doesn’t yet have any formal agreement with the manufacturers, according to SSI’s Bill Anders.
“We’d be more than happy to able to support that,” he said.
The site was set up as a commercial spaceport for privately built rockets such as Athena.
Along with Vandenberg, the rockets can be launched from multiple locations, including Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.; Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska; and NASA Wallops Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Va.
As soon as 2012, the booster will be capable of carrying satellites weighing up to 3,775 pounds to low-Earth orbit, the firms said.
“The new Athena family will fill an industry need for lift capability in this payload range,” said Scott Lehr, ATK Aerospace Systems vice president. “There is a growing need for responsive launch capabilities to serve the Department of Defense, NASA and other customer requirements.”
The booster is designed to compete with other smaller launchers such as Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus rocket, Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon and the Minotaur. But Minotaur uses retired missile stages that are becoming old and in limited supply.
“We think the Athena product will be one of those answers to the retirement of those Peacekeepers motors,” said Simpson.
The second-generation Athena rockets — a two-stage Athena 1c and three-stage Athena 2c — will use the Castor 120 motors for the lower portion of the booster. But the modern versions also will sport ATK’s ground-tested Castor 30 for the upper stage, and modernized electronic systems from Lockheed Martin.