American-made Antares rocket debut slips to 2025

The final Antares rocket built with components made in Russia and Ukraine lifted off from Wallops Island, Virginia last night, marking the end of a successful flight program and renewed pressure on Northrop Grumman and Firefly to develop its replacement.

The Antares-230+ rocket is carrying more than 8,200 pounds of equipment and science experiments for the astronaut crew on the International Space Station. The mission, NG-19, marks the 19th cargo resupply mission by Northrop Grumman on behalf of NASA. The Cygnus spacecraft that carries the supplies is expected to arrive at the station early Friday morning. Astronauts will load the spacecraft up with trash; once it departs the ISS, it will return to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Northrop has been using its Antares-230+ series rocket to fly cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station since 2019, as part of a multibillion-dollar Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 contract from NASA. SpaceX was also awarded a CRS-2 contract for cargo delivery with its Cargo Dragon capsule.

But key components of the Antares-230+ rocket are manufactured in Ukraine and Russia: the first stage is manufactured by Ukrainian companies Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, while the booster’s two RD-181 engines are manufactured by Russian firm Energomash. As tensions between those two countries escalated — and then exploded into war — the future of the Antares-230+ became uncertain.

Almost six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Northrop announced that it would collaborate with Texas-based Firefly Space to develop a new first stage and engines for the Antares launch vehicle. The two companies also said they would develop a separate, unnamed medium-lift vehicle. At the time, Northrop said the 100% American-made Antares, to be called Antares-330, would be ready to fly as early as 2024. But in a press briefing just a few days ago, Kurt Eberly, director of space launch for Northrop, said it would now fly no sooner than 2025.

In the meantime, Northrop ordered three launches on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for its ongoing cargo resupply mission contract. Those missions are scheduled to launch in November, January 2024 and July 2024.