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Athena and Lunar Prospector
Athena rocket carrying the NASA Lunar Prospector spacecraft. The rocket’s similarity to an ICBM is easily apparent. (credit: Roger Guillemette)

Athena rising?

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In December, the US Air Force took what many considered to be the first step in breaking the United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on launching national security satellites into orbit. The Air Force announced that Space Exploration Technologies—better known as SpaceX—had received a contract to launch the DSCOVR solar storm warning spacecraft in 2014 atop a Falcon 9 rocket, and the Space Test Program-2 satellite atop a Falcon Heavy rocket in 2015. But almost completely ignored in the Air Force announcement was that the military would also now allow Lockheed Martin to make its Athena rocket available for launching small national security payloads.

Like all new rockets, it had a rough start.

Athena is not familiar to many people in the space field because it has essentially been off the market for the past dozen years. It originally started life in 1993 as the Lockheed Launch Vehicle, or LLV, later changed to Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle, or LMLV. By its third launch it was renamed Athena—the goddess of wisdom, and strategic warfare. Like all new rockets it had a rough start.

During the early 1990s, many people in the United States were talking about the possibility of smaller satellites taking over many traditional roles. In particular, the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War—also known as Operation Desert Storm—led to much speculation that the military would begin developing smaller satellites that would require launch vehicles.

Name dropping

The first vehicle type was originally designated LLV-1 and then LMLV-1, and was later renamed Athena I. It had two stages. The first stage was comprised of a Thiokol Castor-120 solid rocket motor derived from the Peacekeeper ICBM and the second stage was a Pratt & Whitney Orbus 21D, a low-cost version of the rocket developed for the Inertial Upper Stage. Athena I could launch 794 kilograms into low Earth orbit and was 19.8 meters tall.

The LLV-2, renamed Athena II, added another Castor-120 as a second stage, with the Orbus 21D on top. The Athena also used an Orbit Adjust Module (OAM), which housed an attitude control system and an avionics subsystem for guidance and navigation, telemetry transmission, and command and destruct. The OAM is one meter long and fueled with monopropellant hydrazine. In addition, ATK produces upper stages using three-axis stabilized Star solid motors for payloads requiring escape velocities or geosynchronous orbits. An integrated upper stage was used on the Lunar Prospector launch. Athena II could launch 1,896 kilograms into low Earth orbit and was approximately 30.5 meters in height.

In its original patent, Lockheed also listed an LLV-3, which was basically an LLV-2 equipped with solid strap-on motors and capable of launching 3.6 tons to low Earth orbit.

On August 15, 1995, the first LLV-1 took off from the middle of the sprawling concrete Space Launch Complex-6 facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, only a short distance from the Pacific Ocean. LLV-1 carried the GEMstar 1 communications satellite. But the vehicle suffered problems during ascent and the range safety officer destroyed it. Some people on base blamed the failure on the “Curse of Slick-6,” the racially insensitive rumor that the local Chumash Indians had cursed the launch site (see “The Chumash Indians and the Air Force”, The Space Review, September 4, 2007).

For the second launch, on August 22, 1997, a vehicle now designated the LMLV-1—but apparently already referred to as “Athena” in at least some company literature—also lifted off from SLC-6, this time carrying NASA’s Lewis Earth science satellite. The launch was successful although the payload suffered a malfunction upon reaching orbit. Another SLC-6 launch, carrying the Ikonos commercial remote sensing satellite, failed when the payload fairing did not separate properly.

Around this time Lockheed Martin employees began circulating a joke image showing an Athena launch vehicle fairing with the Ikonos logo and a clip-art image of an Indian supposedly “blessing” the vehicle. But Lockheed Martin employees also brought a local Chumash religious official to the launch complex to “remove the curse.” Apparently, photographs exist of this ceremony. This event, done without the approval of the base commander, apparently angered other members of the Chumash tribe.

The next launch from SLC-6 carried another Ikonos satellite, and it successfully reached orbit. Several other launches from Florida, including the Lunar Prospector spacecraft, were also successful.

The company would need to launch two or three annually to justify production, preferring to make four launches a year to achieve a viable business.

Scheduling launches on the two main American launch ranges can be difficult, particularly for small vehicles that can easily get bumped for higher-priority operators. As a result, Lockheed Martin developed a launch facility capable of polar launches on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. On September 30, 2001, an Athena I successfully launched the Kodiak Star mission. This first Athena launch from Kodiak also proved to be the last Athena launch, for a total of five successes and two failures. The program was soon shut down due to a lack of customers, put into “soft standby,” according to Lockheed Martin’s Athena mission manager. The US Air Force turned to other launch vehicles, particularly the Taurus and Minotaur, although the launch rate for these has been very low, rarely more than three per year, and often less.

Athena III

During the program’s operation in the 1990s, Lockheed Martin officials talked about eventually developing an Athena III vehicle that would add two, four, or six Castor-4A strap-on boosters around the Castor-120 first stage. This would have been an unusual case of a solid rocket with solid rocket boosters. However, the company did not find any customers interested in such a rocket.

In 2010, with the demise of the Delta II rocket, Lockheed Martin announced the possibility of offering the Athena again, this time with the variants designated Athena Ic and IIc to indicate that the Orbus stage had been replaced with a Castor 30 solid rocket motor. The vehicle was added to NASA’s Launch Services II contract, meaning that it was approved to launch NASA payloads, but not that NASA had bought any vehicles.

However, at the same time Lockheed Martin officials also talked about developing the Athena III to compete as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System contract. Unlike the earlier Athena III proposal and its solid strap-on boosters, this time they would adopt a two-and-a-half-segment Shuttle-derived reusable solid rocket booster topped by a Castor-120, Castor 30, and the Orbit Adjust Module. This much more powerful rocket, twice as tall as the Athena I, would be capable of launching 4,600 kilograms into polar orbit from Kodiak, or 5,900 kilograms into low inclination orbit from Cape Canaveral. But the company did not win the COTS contract.

Although no NASA launch contracts emerged, by 2012 Lockheed Martin officials were again talking about the possibility of putting the Athena back into production. They indicated that they would launch an Athena II from Kodiak in 2013 with a “ride-share” launch, although the company did not state what the payloads or customers would be.

Athena’s future

When the Air Force made its contract announcement in December 2012, it indicated that Athena was available for an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract along with Athena’s competitor, Minotaur. The contract primarily means that the Athena is approved for Air Force purchase and does not commit the military to buying any. According to the Athena mission manager, the company would need to launch two or three annually to justify production, preferring to make four launches a year to achieve a viable business.

Perhaps this time is different and soon the Athena will once again begin roaring off into the sky.

The Air Force’s goal in selecting new launch vehicles like Falcon 9 and Athena is obviously to increase competition and hopefully drive down costs. Athena is a competitor with Minotaur. However, the Athena’s Castor-120 stage is not much different in performance than the Peacekeeper ICBM solid propellant stage used in the Minotaur IV. The difference is that the Minotaur IV uses leftover ICBM stages whereas Athena would use new ones, possibly leading to a difference in costs. The Minotaur I uses leftover Minuteman III ICBM stages, and there are hundreds available. Therefore, Athena faces tough competition.

Notably, the Athena III was not included in the contract. Lockheed Martin has publicized plans to upgrade the Kodiak facilities with a larger launch pad and a mobile processing building that would slide back hundreds of meters from the rocket for launch. But construction is contingent upon the company securing an Athena III customer. So far that has not happened.

Over the last two decades there have been several times when people predicted a substantial increase in demand for launching smaller satellites. Those predicted increases have not occurred. Perhaps, though, this time is different and soon the Athena will once again begin roaring off into the sky.