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NASA experts to assist ATK on commercial crew rocket

Posted: September 13, 2011

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NASA and Alliant Techsystems Inc., a leading rocket contractor, announced Tuesday they will share data and expertise in helping design and develop the Liberty rocket, a U.S.-European launcher that could haul humans into Earth orbit by 2015.

Artist's concept of the Liberty rocket on a mobile launch platform at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: ATK
In a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center, government and industry officials said the unfunded Space Act Agreement, or SAA, will allow both entities to communicate and collectively analyze the design of the Liberty rocket.

Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, will continue funding development of the Liberty rocket with internal capital under the Space Act Agreement, which includes four milestones and runs through March 2012. The company plans to bid for NASA funding next year.

"An SAA is an approach in which we both share data and we both share ideas to move forward with a particular design or a particular concept," said Ed Mango, manager of NASA's commercial crew program. "We believe that this effort that we start today will go through next spring and will allow ATK and the commercial crew team, our team of managers, engineers and safety folks, to explore the Liberty design that ATK is wanting to talk about."

ATK's Liberty concept was passed up in April when NASA directed funds to four companies designing and testing commercial spacecraft that could transport astronaut crews to the International Space Station.

NASA picked spacecraft developers over rocket-makers in the April decision, concluding launch vehicles could be ready for crewed flights faster than the proposed capsules and space planes.

"We want talk about [ATK's] design, we want to talk about their requirements, how they want to implement their requirements against their design, talk about the capabilities of the Liberty system as a whole, and understand how they plan to work it in an international approach," Mango said.

The agreement between NASA and ATK covers technical exchanges during the preliminary design review phase of the Liberty program, according to ATK. Mango said NASA would aid ATK with structural, thermal and vibration analyses, plus other core engineering disciplines.

If Liberty is ultimately approved for operations, it could be ready for test flights in 2014 and launching astronauts into orbit by 2015. ATK says the Liberty will cost about $180 million per flight.

The Liberty's first stage is a five-segment solid-fueled booster developed with funding from NASA for the canceled Ares 1 rocket from the shut-down Constellation moon program. Its second stage, manufactured by EADS Astrium, would be the hydrogen-fueled core of Europe's workhorse Ariane 5 rocket.

Both stages were designed to loft human passengers into space. The solid-fueled first stage is an extended version of the strap-on booster used to help propel the space shuttle into orbit. The Ariane 5's first stage Vulcain 2 engine has amassed a record of 45 straight successes since a rocket failure in 2002.

"Both pieces of this system have extensive flight experience with very impressive records," said Kent Rominger, ATK's vice president and program manager for the Liberty rocket.

The Liberty rocket borrows rocket designs from the space shuttle and the Ariane 5 rocket. Credit: ATK
The Liberty is one of three launchers vying to be the next rocket to lift astronaut crews into space from U.S. soil.

NASA signed a similar unfunded Space Act Agreement in July with United Launch Alliance, the builder of the Atlas 5 rocket. SpaceX plans to fly crewed missions of the Dragon capsule on its own Falcon 9 rocket, assuming the firm wins a NASA contract.

The space agency is shifting its human spaceflight strategy following the retirement of the space shuttle. NASA is fostering the development of commercial rockets and spacecraft to deliver crews to the International Space Station, freeing up government resources to design vehicles for more ambitious exploration missions to asteroids, Mars and other deep space destinations.

NASA awarded $269 million to four companies in April to help mature their crew-carrying spacecraft concepts. Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin and SpaceX were the winners of the second round of funded Commercial Crew Development agreements, which run through May 2012.

Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin each plan to initially fly their spacecraft on the Atlas 5 rocket.

"With Liberty, we showed up a little bit later than the Atlas 5 that's been flying," Rominger said. "Having said that, what we've found are a couple of things. Folks are very interested in Liberty because of the value that we bring. We're competitive, we believe, pricing-wise for the performance. Nobody can match what liberty can do, in particular if you look at the reliability and safety of the systems, the heritage of our systems."

The 300-foot-tall Liberty rocket can lift 44,500 pounds of payload to the International Space Station's orbit. It's powerful enough to lift any of the commercial crew vehicles now under consideration.

Kent Rominger, a former NASA astronaut, emphasized the two-stage launcher would be based at Cape Canaveral and use existing infrastructure from the space shuttle and defunct Ares rocket programs.

"There is a reason I'm sitting here at the Kennedy Space Center," Rominger said. "This is going to be the home of Liberty. Clearly, the infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center right here is set up perfectly to enable us to process Liberty and launch Liberty. So [we will] not just use the infrastructure but the people here at the Kennedy Space Center. We wind up bringing jobs into Florida and using the existing expertise that we've developed over the last five decades."

According to Rominger, the Liberty program could bring about 300 jobs to the Florida Space Coast if it becomes operational. There are between 35 and 40 ATK employees currently working on the program, Rominger said.