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Orbital separation

— Orbital Sciences Corp., the company that was supposed to provide guidance (and a few million dollars as well) for Rocketplane Kistler's bid to build a new orbital spaceship for NASA, says it's parting ways with the team. However, Rocketplane Kistler's president, Randy Brinkley, told Space News that his company already has lined up a replacement strategic partner that will serve at least as well. A couple of months ago, the Orbital-Rocketplane relationship looked as if it would serve as the paradigm for bridges between "Old Space" and "New Space." So what happened?

The speculation from folks such as Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg is that the rules of the rocket game are shifting somewhat. Orbital had been a partner on Lockheed Martin's team for NASA's Orion moonship, and when Lockmart won that multibillion-dollar contract, Orbital may have decided it was better to concentrate on the Orion product line rather than Rocketplane Kistler's K-1 craft.

Or it might merely have been the kind of business conflict that often arises when two companies think they should be in the driver's seat of a joint venture. After all, Orbital had its own ideas about how to fill NASA's needs for resupplying the international space station - and it may have tried to adapt some of those ideas for the Rocketplane contract, even though NASA took a pass on them the first time around.

If nothing else, the Orbital separation illustrates that the course toward truly affordable spaceflight will not always run smooth. It's worth noting as well that Lockheed Martin is also a member of Rocketplane Kistler's team, so there's still an "Old Space" connection.

Here are Rocketplane Kistler's "talking points" for its side of the story, which Rand posted last night, and which I received independently even later last night:

  • In June 2006, Rocketplane Kistler and Orbital Sciences initiated discussions regarding a strategic relationship in which Orbital would have both a significant role in the development of the K-1 and a significant financial interest in Rocketplane Kistler.
  • Rocketplane Kistler has been very pleased with the programmatic and technical interfaces with the Orbital personnel.
  • However, in recent weeks, Orbital has conditioned investment in Rocketplane Kistler on changes to the K-1 Program that Rocketplane Kistler does not believe are in the best interests of Rocketplane Kistler and would be inconsistent with the goals and objectives of NASA in entering into a Space Act Agreement with Rocketplane Kistler.
  • As a result, Rocketplane Kistler and Orbital have decided to terminate their strategic relationship.
  • As part of its planning processes, Rocketplane Kistler has anticipated the possibility that one or more of its contractors may elect not to participate in the K-1 program.  While the company regrets Orbital's decision, the decision will not impair the ability of the company to meet its obligations to NASA under the SAA [Space Act Agreement].  Among other things, we are increasing near-term RpK staffing plans for conducting SE&I-related [systems engineering and integration] activities that were previously planned for Orbital. RpK is also continuing discussions with several potential industry strategic partners who have recently approached Rocketplane Kistler about participating in SE&I and other development and operational areas of interest on the K1. We anticipate completing those discussions in the very near future and finalizing appropriate agreements that will provide the best strategic and economic value to Rocketplane Kistler.