At 17.00 local time on April 21, 2013, the first Antares expendable launch system lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Iceland, Virginia. The rocket orbited the Cygnus Mass Simulator (the boilerplate payload simulating the mass of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft), along with four CubeSat miniaturized satellites. Antares’ first stage comprises engines based on the 40-year-old NK-33 design developed for the Soviet lunar program.
Antares has been created by Orbital Sciences Corp (OSC) as part of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort to coordinate the delivery of crew and cargo to the International Space Station. On February 19, 2008, NASA awarded OSC with the $170 million COTS contract. The Antares system had cost OSC $150 million to develop.
The main goal pursued by the Antares developers was a positive operating margin even at low utilization rates of two to four launches a year. From the very early stages of the program, OSC was aiming to make the maximum possible use of existing components. The first stage was developed by Ukraine-based Yuzhnoye design office from the tank section of the Zenit rocket. The US corporation ATK built the second-stage solid-fuel motor from the first stage of the MX ICBM.
The most important solution however, the one that helped speed up the project significantly, was the use of two Aerojet AJ-26 liquid-fuel engines. In the early 1990s, the US rocket and mission propulsion house Aerojet General had acquired the right to use two rocket motor designs by Samara-based NPO Trud (now known as JSC Kuznetsov, a member of Russia’s United Engine Corporation (UEC)) in the engine tender under the Lockheed Martin Atlas-3 launch vehicle program. The tender was eventually won by another Russian engine, the NPO Energomash RD-180, but the Samara motors also found their market niche. Aerojet had purchased 70 NK-33 and 18 NK-43 engines; 36 NK-33s and 10 NK-43s were subsequently delivered to the USA, priced at between $1 million and $4 million per unit, along with a complete set of design documentation for both models and a license to build the NK-33 in America.
The Aerojet upgrade of the NK-33, known as the AJ26-62, slightly differs from the Soviet baseline: it now has thrust-vectoring capability; changes have been made to the layout of feed lines; the powder charges in the electro-explosive devices and the rubber components have been replaced. But the core technology is essentially of Soviet design.
The potential of Antares proved to be so high that NASA decided not to wait for the testing phase: on December 23, 2008, OSC was awarded with the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract to provide eight resupply missions to the ISS.
Antares was the second successful commercial launch vehicle after the SpaceX Falcon 9 to be developed under the COTS program. The US private space sector has once again demonstrated its ability to develop medium-class launch vehicles within short periods of time, while NASA regained the ISS resupply capability which it had lost with the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet. The second experimental Antares launch, this time with an actual payload on board, should take place this fall.
The first Antares launch became a milestone event for the Russian rocket propulsion industry. "The Russian NK-33 design has found its US customer," said UEC General Director Vladislav Masalov. "In the near future it will be installed on a Russian light rocket. The Soviet-era designers left us so massive a reserve of research and technology solutions that even now, four decades on, we use powerplants from that era on modern launch vehicles. Apart from utilizing the existing motors, we are working to resume their production at a whole new level of technology. I am convinced that our designers and engineers are capable of achieving this."
http://www.ato.ru/content/russian-heart-us-rocket Igor Afanasyev, Dmitry Vorontsov