A DART Near Miss: Infighting at Orbital – and Deceiving NASA

By Keith Cowing
November 9, 2004
Filed under

10 November 2004

Mr. Keith Cowing


Dear Mr. Cowing:

Yesterday’s SpaceRef.com article relating to a potential problem with second-stage motor ignition loads on Orbital’s Pegasus launch vehicle contains numerous factual errors. The most important and harmful among them is the false accusation that Orbital was “deceiving NASA” in failing to report what the company knew about this matter. Specifically, the article states that Orbital “knew about these problems for months and yet they kept that information from NASA.” As demonstrated by the facts outlined below, this is totally untrue.

Here is what really took place: Orbital uses ATK-produced Orion 50XL solid rocket motors in four launch vehicles built by the company (Pegasus, Taurus, Minotaur and Orbital Boost Vehicle). While it is correct that Orbital had been reviewing Orion 50XL motor ignition loads data for several months on certain non-Pegasus launch vehicles, at no time prior to early last week were second-stage motor ignition loads believed to be a potential issue for Pegasus in general or the DART spacecraft mission in particular, due to vehicle-specific configuration differences between Pegasus and other Orion-based vehicles.

Orbital first discovered a possible connection between two prior-flight Orion 50XL motor ignition loads and the Pegasus loads used in the DART mission analysis late in the day on Tuesday, November 2, 2004. An internal Flight Readiness Board (FRB) meeting was convened at Orbital on Wednesday, November 3 to review this issue in detail. Following this internal FRB meeting, NASA was promptly informed early on Thursday, November 4 that a potential loads issue that could effect the DART spacecraft was being investigated. Detailed engineering discussions between NASA and Orbital on this matter took place on both Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6, and a decision was made on the latter date to postpone the November 9 Pegasus/DART launch attempt to investigate the matter more thoroughly.

Orbital and NASA both adhered to standard pre-flight engineering and mission assurance processes throughout this period, with timely and complete communications on this and any other matters that could potentially effect the DART mission’s success. There was and is absolutely no truth to the statements that Orbital “dragged (its) feet,” “sat on their information” or “withheld (vital) information from NASA.” Neither is there any basis whatsoever to the claims that there was “infighting at Orbital” or that “senior management at Orbital was apparently not at all interested in seeing this issue raised” with NASA.

Hundreds of dedicated people at Orbital have worked hard for over 20 years to earn and maintain the trust of NASA, one of our best and longest-standing customers, in our products and processes. In particular, the outstanding record of our Pegasus team, which currently stands at 21 consecutive successful launches over the last 7 years, is testimony to their expertise, commitment and close partnership with the space agency. Your cavalier treatment of their integrity and professionalism is grossly unfair to them. They deserve an immediate retraction of this article.


/s/ Dave W. Thompson

David W. Thompson

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer


10 November 2004: Editor’s note: The core of this story was based on information provided to me by someone at NASA Headquarters yesterday morning. They contacted me in an official capacity. I did not contact them. They did not request anonymity as they provided this information to me nor did they tell me not to publish it. As such what is in this article is a summation of what a NASA civil servant told me – not things I made up. I was also contacted by an employee of Orbital after the initial version of the article went online. That employee provided me with information I used to update the article. The employee said that I was free to identify him if need be. However I did not identify him out of habit. As such, contrary to Orbital’s email below, I do indeed have a “factual basis for [my] original article”. I have provided contacts for Orbital’s lawyer at NASA and within Orbital to pursue this matter.

Updated 9 November 2004 4:30 PM EST – errata: correction of error in original version regarding which Orbital divisions built DART and the Pegasus launch vehicle; plus comments from an Orbital Source.

On Monday NASA issued a curiously short press release stating “The launch of NASA’s DART spacecraft aboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL scheduled for Tuesday is postponed. A review of projected loads data, or the G-forces the payload experiences upon ignition of the Pegasus second stage, is being re-evaluated to ensure mission success.”

NASA Watch has learned that Orbital Sciences knew about these problems for months and yet they kept that information from NASA.

This is the sort of thing that should have been caught a while ago – much earlier in the design process – not while the spacecraft is attached to its launch vehicle awaiting launch. Given previous mishaps, the obvious question to ask is “what did NASA know and when did it know it?”

According to sources within NASA and the aerospace community, NASA did indeed know there was an issue with the Pegasus launch vehicle to be used to launch DART – but they only learned about it last Friday!

Both the Pegasus launch vehicle and the DART spacecraft were built by Orbital Sciences’ Launch Division.

About a year ago, Orbital changed the stage two igniter in the Pegasus launch vehicle that would be used to launch DART. They eventually determined that the launch environment would be different and that it would present a larger launch load – one which would have damaged the DART spacecraft.

At the time of the change NASA asked Orbital Launch Division for information on this change and how it would affect the mission. Orbital Launch Division dragged their feet and eventually told NASA not to worry. This situation continued until last week. Senior management at Orbital was apparently not at all interested in seeing this issue raised with its customer, NASA.

Within Orbital Sciences a conflict arose. Data told them that these new launch loads would indeed damage the spacecraft. Eventually, people felt that they could not keep this information from NASA any longer.

In a telecon last Friday, an Orbital Vice President finally admitted to NASA that the changes in the launch vehicle would create different launch loads than had originally been expected – and that this could indeed damage the DART spacecraft. They also admitted that this was not a new concern, but rather one they had known about for some time.

NASA was not at all happy to learn this. Indeed, they had been given no indication that this was even an issue.

NASA had originally planned to launch DART on or around 26 October. That launch was scrubbed when problems arose with a GPS receiver. That problem was resolved and a new launch date was set. The new launch date was then scrubbed “due to the discovery of particulate contamination found inside the fairing of the Pegasus launch vehicle.” according to a NASA Press release.

The official NASA press release went on to say “During the final flight preparations for the DART/Pegasus launch, closeout team members discovered pieces of aluminum foil from the launch vehicle’s fairing. As a result, the vehicle will be de-mated from the carrier aircraft and returned to the vehicle assembly building, where it will be inspected.”

What was not mentioned in this press release was the fact that the payload shroud had been purged with nitrogen after a rain storm presented a possible payload contamination issue. During the purging, the 40 psi nitrogen pressure line came loose – and some of the insulating foil on DART was damaged. It was later determined that this nitrogen line had only been secured with a twist-on wire wrap. This line was reportedly re-attached in the same manner.

Had there not been a rain storm, and the need to purge the payload, it is highly probable that there would have been a launch of DART by now – unless someone at Orbital came forward to stop it. Instead, Orbital still sat on this information for 4 more days.

Given the launch environment that DART would have faced, had there been a launch, NASA and Orbital would now be in the beginning phases of a yet another Mishap Investigation Board right now.

A safety process cannot work when a contractor withholds vital information from its customer – in this case, Orbital withheld information from NASA.

NASA is not blameless here either. While Orbital should clearly have been much, much more forthcoming, someone at NASA should have gotten suspicious a long time ago. When Orbital did not provide information to support their assertion that launch vehicle changes would not affect the launch environment experienced by the payload, an alarm bell should have gone off inside someone’s head at NASA.

I hope someone is going to do something about this.

Update: A source within Orbital, responding to an earlier version of this story, claims that there was no withholding of information from NASA and that Orbital provided NASA with data as soon as it was available. The Orbital source claims that the concern arose from a transient event with one previous launch – one involving an Orbital Taurus launch vehicle. Taurus also uses the same stage and the new igniter (supplied by Alliant Tech Systems). During this launch, Orbital saw a ‘pulse’ in the performance of this vehicle which gave them some concerns. Studies were undertaken to understand this event in July/August 2004. The source claims that Orbital did not know what they were seeing and were wondering if the data was correct. That said, analysis continued. This study, conducted by one part of Orbital was only made available to the Launch Division portion of Orbital early last week – on Monday. Once Orbital understood the issue, according to this source, they immediately informed NASA – on Friday. None the less, NASA was not informed that this issue had been under review within Orbital since at least July, or that the payload was possibly at risk, until after the planned launch date in late October.

9 November 2004: Did NASA space robot dodge disaster?, MSNBC

“[Orbital spokesman Barry] Benesky couldn’t recall any past case where a launch was called off so close to the launch date on the basis of review of old data. “It is unusually late” this time, he conceded. But he insisted that in the end, launch managers did the right thing: “We told the customer, and together we decided to take some time to review it.”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.