Athena – Space Launch Report

Athena - Space Launch Report

Lockheed Martin Athena

 Athena - Space Launch Report

Athena 2 (LM-004) used to launch Lunar Prospector

Athena is series of solid-motor based orbital launch vehicles offered by Lockheed Martin.  The vehicle was originally developed by Lockheed Corporation in 1993, when it was called the “Lockheed Launch Vehicle” (LLV).  Only the first unsuccessful launch in 1995 was conducted under the LLV name, as an LLV-1 variant. 

Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta shortly after that first flight.  For a time the rocket family was known as the “Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle” (LMLV), but it was given the Athena name soon after it returned to flight in 1997.  Seven LLV/LMLV/Athena launch vehicles flew before the family was retired after 2001.  The retirement may turn out to be temporary.  On March 25, 2010, Lockheed Martin announced plans to return a modified Athena to service using a new upper stage.      

Two Athena versions were originally flown.  Athena 1 used a Thiokol (later ATK) Castor 120 first stage and a United Technologies Chemical Systems Division Orbus 21D second stage.  Castor 120 was a commercial solid motor derived from the Peacekeeper first stage program.  The Orbus 21D stage was derived from an Inertial Upper Stage solid motor flown atop Shuttle, Titan 34D, and Titan 4.  Athena 2 used Castor 120 both as a first and second stage, with Orbus 21D as a third stage. 

Also read: New Launchers – Angara

Castor 120 First Stage Lift at SLC-46


Both Athena types could be equipped with an optional monopropellant Orbit Adjust Module (OAM) origionally developed by Primex Technologies (acquired by General Dynamics in 2001).  OAM used low-thrust pressure-fed monomethylhydrazine (MMH) thrusters to fine-tune or raise orbits, to provide roll control during solid motor burns, and to provide three-axis control during coast periods.

The first two launches took place from Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 6, the mothballed, never-used Space Shuttle launch facility that itself had originally been constructed for the never-flown U.S. Air Force Titan 3M Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. 

The first launch, on August 15, 1995, failed due to loss of flight control, causing a range safety destruct command to be issued 160 seconds into the flight.  Multiple failures plagued the flight.  A cable burned through near the end of the first stage burn, causing loss of first stage thrust vector control for a few moments.  Still, the rocket could have recovered from that problem during the second stage burn if the inertial navigation system had not failed.   Arcing due to the presence of ionized particles at high altitude created false readings, causing the rocket to steer in the wrong direction.  It turned out that the INS unit had originally been designed for use on helicopters and was not meant for use in the near-vacuum of space.

Orbus 21D Upper Stage Lift


The second launch, of an LMLV-1 on August 22, 1997, successfully orbited NASA’s Lewis satellite.  Unfortunately, Lewis failed only three days after reaching its initial near-polar orbit.  The dead spacecraft reentered a few days after launch since it was unable to maneuver to its intended, higher altitude sun synchronous operating orbit.

The Athena team moved to Cape Canaveral’s new Space Launch Complex 46 for the rocket’s next two launches.  On January 7, 1998 the first Athena-2 orbited NASA’s Lunar Prospector.  The rocket, topped by an OAM fourth stage, boosted a 1,523 kg payload into low Earth orbit (LEO). 

The payload mass mostly consisted of a Star 37FM solid motor that served as a trans-lunar injection (TLI) stage for the spin-stabilized spacecraft.  Five days after launch, Lunar Prospector used its on-board monopropellant system to maneuver itself into lunar orbit for a magnetic field mapping mission.

One year later, an Athena 1 launched ROCSAT 1, Taiwan’s first satellite, into a 588 x 601 km x 35 deg orbit from SLC 46.  The rocket’s OAM performed two burns to insert the 400 kg satellite into its orbit.   It would be the last launch from the Spaceport Florida pad for the original Athena program.

Also read: Firefly Alpha Data Sheet – Space Launch Report

OAM Stage Stacked on Final Athena 1


1999 also saw two Athena 2 launches from Vandenberg SLV 6.  Both carried Lockheed Martin-built 726 kg Ikonos commercial imaging satellites.  The first on April 27 failed to reach orbit due to a payload fairing separation failure.  The second, on September 24, succeeded. 

Ikonos was lifted by Athena’s OAM stage toward its final 678 km sun synchronous orbit.   Commentators noted that the latter launch was the first fully successful mission flown from SLC 6 after billions of dollars had been spent on the site over more than two decades.    

Two more years would pass before the next launch, of an Athena 1 that orbited several microsatellites from a new site on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  The rocket’s OAM stage performed multiple burns to insert satellites into high and low orbits.  Having consumed its inventory of solid motors, Lockheed Martin quietly shelved Athena after the flight. 

Athena 1 LM-001 Performs First Kodiak Orbital Launch


It seemed likely that Athena would not fly again, but on March 25, 2010 Lockheed Martin and ATK announced plans to restore Athena to service in the form of modified Athena 1c and Athena 2c rockets.  Both would use the same Castor 120 solid rocket motors, but would replace the retired Orbus 21D with ATK’s new Castor 30 solid motor.  Athena 1c and 2c would be available beginning in 2012.  Athena 2c would be able to lift up to 1,712 kilograms into low Earth orbit (LEO).

A proposed Athena 3 was never developed.  The first Athena 3 design would have added a pair of Castor 4A strap-on motors to the first stage.   A later Athena 3 design, proposed by Planetspace for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transporatation Service contract, would have used a 2.5 segment Shuttle SRB-based first stage, topped by a Castor 120 and a Castor 30.

Vehicle Configurations (Estimated)

(metric tons)
(1) 200 km x 28.7 deg
(2) 200 km x 90 deg
GTOEarth Escape (C3=0)ConfigurationLIftoff
(metric tons)
(no payoad)
Athena 10.795 t (1)
0.515 t (2)
Castor 120 Stg 1 + Orbus 21D Stg 2
+ OAM Stg 3
~23 m~64.8 t
Athena 21.985 t (1)
1.490 t (2)
5.93 tCastor 120 Stg 1 + Castor 120 Stg 2 + Orbus 21D Stg 3 + OAM Stg 4~24.7 m~117.9 t
Athena 1c~0.76 t (1)Castor 120 Stg 1 + Castor 30 Stg 2 + OAM Stg 3~24.2 m~68.2 t
Athena 2c~1.71 t (1)Castor 120 Stg 1 + Castor 120 Stg 2 + Castor 30 Stg 3 + OAM Stg 4~26 m~121.3 t

Vehicle Components

Castor 120Orbus 21DCastor 30Orbit Adjust
Diameter (m)2.36 m2.34 m2.3 m2.3 m (est)
Length (m)10.7 m3.5 m1.0 m9 m (est)
Empty Mass (tonnes)4.07 t0.848 t1.224 t0.36 t0.45 t (est)
Propellant Mass (tonnes)49.00 t9.766 t12.834 t0.354 t
Total Mass (tonnes)53.07 t10.614 t14.06 t0.714 t
EngineCastor 120Orbus 21DCastor 30MR-107
Engine MfgrATKUTCATKPrimex
Fuelsolid HTPBSolid HTPBsolid HTPBHydrazine
Oxidizersolid HTPBSolid HTPBsolid HTPB
(SL tons)
163.27 t
(Vac tons)
171.88 t (avg)19.833 t26.39 t (avg)0.09 t
ISP (SL sec)229 s
ISP (Vac sec)278.9 s (avg)293 s294 s (avg, est)222 s
Burn Time (sec)79.55 s150 s143 s1,500 s
No. Engines1114
CommentsTVC NozzleTVC NozzleTVC NozzleMonopropellant,
Pressure Fed

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