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Rocket venture to work with NASA

NASA file

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in February 2010.

United Launch Alliance, the venture that sends most of America's robotic spacecraft into orbit and beyond, has struck a deal with NASA to find out what it will take to make ULA's Atlas 5 rocket ready for NASA's astronauts.

No money is changing hands under the terms of NASA's Space Act agreement with United Launch Alliance, announced today. But Ed Mango, NASA's program manager for commercial crew development, said the space agency would study the launch venture's record over the next six to nine months to assess what risks would be involved in launching humans to the International Space Station on the Atlas 5.

United Launch Alliance, meanwhile, will spend "a significant amount of money, ULA internal funds" to make the Atlas system more crew-worthy, said George Sowers, ULA's vice president for business development. United Launch Alliance is a joint venture involving Lockheed Martin (which makes Atlas rockets) and The Boeing Co. (which makes Delta rockets).

ULA launches most of the U.S. military's satellites and U.S. commercial satellites, as well as NASA unmanned probes ranging from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to the Mars rovers and the Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft. But NASA has never cleared either the Atlas or the Delta to launch humans into space.

Mango said one reason for that was the space shuttle. As long as the shuttles were flying, there was no need to certify other rockets as having a "human rating." Now that the shuttle era is ending, NASA will have to certify new launch vehicles as well as new spaceships.

"It could have been done years ago ... but from an overall policy for NASA, now is the right time to do it," he told journalists.

The agreement announced today marks just one small step toward human-rating the Atlas 5. NASA and ULA are focusing on that rocket because it's the chosen launch vehicle for two of the companies receiving tens of millions of dollars from the space agency to develop new spaceships — namely, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin. Boeing is also considering the Atlas as the initial launch vehicle for its CST-100 commercial spaceship. The fourth company in the NASA-funded commercial spaceship race, SpaceX, plans to use its own Falcon 9 rocket to launch its Dragon capsule.

During NASA's last shuttle mission, Atlantis' astronauts gave the space station's crew members a U.S. flag that had flown aboard the first shuttle mission in 1981 and asked them to keep it safe for the first crew to visit the space station aboard a commercial spacecraft. Mango said NASA was still aiming for that first flight to occur around 2015 — although he acknowledged today that the date was "a little bit soft," due in part to funding concerns. NASA had earlier signaled that $850 million would be set aside for the next phase of the commercial crew development project, but that funding level is under congressional scrutiny.

Sowers contended that the Atlas 5's track record, with 26 straight successful launches, made it a front-runner to carry astronauts in the future — and he said the rocket could be ready by the time any spacecraft was ready to fly on it.

He said the key enhancements yet to be added to the Atlas launch system included an Emergency Detection System, which would monitor the rocket's telemetry for any warning signs, and issue alerts or abort commands to the crew if anything went wrong. NASA gave $6.7 million to ULA during the first phase of the commercial crew development program to work on the detection system, and ULA said it spent another $1.3 million on its prototype test bed.

Sowers also said ULA would work on the infrastructure for getting astronauts on and off an Atlas launch pad.

The next phase of NASA funding for commercial crew is expected to go forward around the middle of next year, and would focus on the integrated design of launch vehicles, spacecraft and mission operations, Mango said. ULA could be in the running for further funding at that time.

Mango emphasized that human-rating certification was still years away — and that such certifications would have to cover complete systems, rather than the rocket and the spaceship separately. Nevertheless, he said today's agreement should be seen as a positive sign for U.S. human spaceflight as the space shuttle program is winding down.

"It's a good day for the commercial crew program ... It's a very good day for ULA, and overall it's a very good day for Americans to know that we're continuing our efforts in space," Mango said.

That sentiment was seconded in a statement from Mango's boss, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

"I am truly excited about the addition of ULA to NASA's commercial crew development team," Bolden said. "Having ULA on board may speed the development of a commercial crew transportation system for the International Space Station, allowing NASA to concentrate its resources on exploring beyond low-Earth orbit."

Other angles to the deal:

  • Sowers noted that the Atlas 5 was also being considered by Bigelow Aerospace, along with Boeing's CST-100 capsule, as the means for carrying passengers to and from the commercial space stations that it's planning to put in orbit in the 2015 time frame.
  • Mango noted that ULA's other big rocket, the Delta 4, was being considered as a potential launch vehicle for NASA's Orion crew vehicle, also known as the multipurpose crew vehicle or MPCV. NASA plans to use the Orion for exploration beyond Earth orbit, starting in the 2017-2020 time frame. However, beyond-orbit trips will require the development of a new heavy-lift rocket currently known as the Space Launch System or SLS. The Delta 4 could be used for less ambitious trips — for test flights or trips to the space station, for example. Although ULA's work under the Space Act agreement did not directly apply to the Delta, Sowers said the development of the Emergency Detection System could benefit efforts to win a human rating for the Delta 4 as well.

More perspectives on the post-shuttle era:

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