ATK Reveals New Space Launcher, Looks For NASA Support
May 10, 2012

ATK Reveals New Space Launcher, Looks For NASA Support

The retirement of the Space Shuttle program has left NASA with few options for launching Americans into space, except through the Russian space agency which charges more than $60 million per person for rides to the International Space Station (ISS).

But NASA is hoping to end its reliance on Russia and get future rides to and from the ISS on a US-developed spacecraft, and hoping that ride could come as early as 2017.

“We´re making steady progress and we´re hitting our marks as we go,” Todd May, manager of the Space Launch System Program Office at NASA´s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, told Todd Halvorson of FLORIDA TODAY. “We´re pleased to report that we´re on track for 2017.”

One of the possibilities, largely kept a secret until today, was unveiled by Utah-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK). It is among four other companies -- Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX -- competing to build space vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

ATK, which built the space shuttle booster rockets, has teamed with Astrium, an EADS company that manufactures European Ariane 5 rockets, to bid for NASA´s space taxi development funds last year but was not selected. ATK continued to work on the project with its own funds, said ex-shuttle astronaut Kent Rominger, who is now ATK vice president and Liberty program manager.

Rominger said ATK´s new system, Liberty, has a composite seven-person capsule, a launch escape system, propulsion module, avionics, an operations plan and other components for a complete space launch system. Liberty could be ready to fly to the ISS as early as 2015, he said, adding that seats would be far cheaper than rides now offered by Russia. He said ATK hopes to attempts its first test launch in 2014.

“Today, we don´t have the ability to launch astronauts from the United States, so showing up with this service quickly is very important,” Rominger told Jonathan Amos of BBC News. “Twenty-fifteen is when I´m going to fly crew. We have our first crew picked out [and] our first test commander.”

During Thursday´s press conference, ATK´s Rominger said he hoped that the heritage of Liberty´s systems will prove most attractive to NASA.

Liberty is based on a slightly longer version of the solid-fueled shuttle booster, which forms the first stage of the rocket. The crew capsule is still in development. The top half will use the liquid-fueled core-stage technology and engine that powers ESA´s Ariane 5 rocket. Ariane is currently the world´s dominant launcher of large telecommunications satellites, but was originally designed in the 1980s as a means to put a European crew shuttle in orbit.

And the service module for the capsule is based on technologies already developed for NASA´s Orion deep-space crew craft. Lockheed Martin, which has been doing the service module work, is now a member of the Liberty team. ATK was on NASA´s design team for the composite alternative.

“As a taxpayer, I want to get the best value out of what I´ve invested into our government. For example, Ares 1 (rocket program) was cancelled, so to now pick up where the government left off is a very smart thing to do. It brings us the best value as a nation,” Rominger told Reuters.

Alain Charmeau, CEO of Astrium Space Transportation, said his company was “interested in Liberty because it´s a new market for us, and a chance to enter into a US opportunity.”

“We´re already the leader in the commercial satellite market, but with Liberty we would be entering a new program that has, as a first priority, to serve US government requirements. That´s new for us,” Charmeau told BBC News.

Liberty operations call for the Ariane second stage to be built in Europe and then shipped to Florida for integration into the finished vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center. However, if Liberty becomes a big success, Astrium may replicate its Ariane production facilities in the US.

“We hope that the market will be big enough so that we will have to duplicate production tools, and if that happens we will open the debate about whether we do that in Europe or in the US, and whether it is just for final assembly or includes the components as well,” explained Charmeau.

ATK has an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA, presently. This means it benefits from the agency´s advice and expertise, but must develop the Liberty concept from its own funds. Rominger said the 2015 target for a crewed launch is dependent on NASA choosing Liberty as the preferred launch system, in which case it would then receive financial support.

Rominger noted, however, that even if NASA overlooked Liberty, ATK would continue to work on bringing Liberty to market.

If selected as the primary launch system, Liberty would fly from one of the space shuttle launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Rominger said the capsules, which would parachute to a water landing, are designed to fly up to 10 times. The rocket and capsule could also carry cargo to and from the space station, as well as be used for satellite launches and other missions.

Rominger declined to say how much ATK and its partners have spent developing the Liberty system so far.