| Propulsion | Aerospace

A Q&A with Orbital ATK: Exploring the Roots of Rocketry

At Orbital ATK, Mark Ogren works on the preliminary design of the company’s propulsion technologies, including targets, interceptors, or space launch vehicles. Ogren spoke with Tech Briefs about Orbital’s beginnings, and the origins of his own love for rocketry.

Before the 2015 merger with ATK, Orbital Sciences Corporation was founded in 1982 by three friends who had met attending Harvard Business School. Armed with their business school education, and an initial round of financing, the trio of David W. Thompson, Scott Webster, and Bruce Ferguson developed their first product: NASA’s Transfer Orbital Stage (TOS), an upper-stage rocket designed to boost payloads into high orbits.

Mark Ogren, Vice President of Business Development for the Launch Vehicles Division of Orbital ATK.

Ogren, Vice President of Business Development for the Launch Vehicles Division of Orbital ATK, headquartered in Chandler, AZ, came to the company a decade later.

Tech Briefs: How did you get involved in rocketry?

Mark Ogren: I’d been around aviation and rocketry as a little boy. My mother would take me to air shows. As a kid, my parents actually got me a few shares of McDonnell-Douglas [a Missouri-based aerospace manufacturing corporation and defense contractor established in 1967]. So, as a 12-year-old, I would go down to the stockholder meeting in St. Louis in a sport coat and tie, and then get a tour of the fighter production line. I had an Aviation Week and Space Technology subscription when I was 12. I got my first Estes model rocket when I was 8. I became an aerospace engineer and came to work for Orbital Sciences in 1992.

Tech Briefs: Can you describe the first rocket that Orbital launched?

Ogren: Orbital ATK developed the Pegasus rocket. Dr. Antonio Elias came up with an idea, literally sketching it on a napkin, of a rocket being launched from the wing of a B52 and putting payloads into orbit.

The first launch occurred on April 5, 1990, from Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. And to date, we’ve launched 43 Pegasus rockets. We have several launches scheduled this year: a Minotaur-C launch vehicle, an Antares launch vehicle, and a Pegasus launch vehicle.

Tech Briefs: How fast is this technology progressing?

Ogren: The technology has been pretty well understood for some time; the physics are the same. What’s changing is you’re getting faster processors, improved software and materials, and a better understanding of how to make things work for your customer.

Tech Briefs: How do you see private-sector rocketry efforts working alongside NASA’s efforts?

Ogren: There’s a role for everyone. [Space travel] requires a combined effort of government and private sector. With the International Space Station, there had to be agreement between multiple nations on funding, science, and crewing. The private sector would have a real problem with that. NASA, since it is a government agency, could make those agreements between nations.

The commercial marketplace can be used once the established framework has been done. Orbital ATK, for instance, has a contract to provide commercial resupply service to the International Space Station. We take materials up, and all kinds of required equipment for the crew, and then take out the trash on the way down.

Tech Briefs: What is most exciting to you about the rocketry work that Orbital ATK does?

Ogren: It’s a true challenge when you launch rockets. Rockets are kind of binary; they either work really well, or they don’t. It’s not like driving a car, where you can have your turn signal burn out or your engine die and coast to a stop. We have explosives strapped onto us. So, all the systems have to work!

What do you think? Did you own an Estes rocket? Share your rocketry origin stories below.