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NASA makes a deal with booster builder for new rocket

An ATK video describes the development of the Liberty rocket for NASA's use.

NASA and ATK, the Utah-based company that built solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle, have announced a deal to work together on the development of a new commercial rocket.

Today's Space Act agreement, which runs through next March, does not call for NASA to pay ATK. In fact, it's conceivable that ATK could pay NASA for services rendered at Kennedy Space Center in Florida or elsewhere. But eventually ATK hopes that the Liberty rocket, built in cooperation with Europe's EADS Astrium aerospace consortium, will be used to send astronauts to the International Space Station, with NASA paying the cost.

"This is going to be the home of Liberty," Kent Rominger, vice president of strategy and business development for ATK Aerospace, told journalists at Kennedy Space Center during a news briefing.

That means ATK would have to buddy up with a spaceship company, such as the Boeing Co. (with its CST-100 crew vehicle) or Sierra Nevada Corp. (with its Dream Chaser space plane). ATK sees today's agreement as a way to get through the door and make its pitch to those future spaceship providers.

Rominger said the Liberty rocket could be used by any of the space taxis currently being considered for NASA's use.

ATK, or Alliant Techsystems, is already testing a modified version of its four-segment solid rocket booster for NASA's future use. The latest on-the-ground engine test went off successfully just last week in Utah. Beefed-up versions of the booster could be used not only as part of the Liberty launch system but also as part of NASA's more powerful Space Launch System, which is still in the planning stage.

The company had been working on a five-segment version of the booster for NASA's Ares 1 rocket as an element to support NASA's Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon, but Ares 1 went by the wayside when the back-to-the-moon effort was canceled. Today's agreement could lead to a revival of at least a part of the Ares 1 program under a different name. 

Between now and next March, ATK and NASA would work together on the design of the Liberty rocket. The current design calls for the five-segment booster to serve as Liberty's first stage, with an adapted version of Europe's workhorse Ariane 5 rocket serving as the second stage. The rocket would be capable of lifting 44,000 pounds (20 metric tons) to low-Earth orbit, ATK says.

Although the company is working on hardware at its Utah facilities, no hardware would be delivered to NASA under the terms of the current agreement, Rominger said. "Right now, it's paper," he said.

Ed Mango, NASA's commercial crew program manager, said the Liberty project provided an "outstanding opportunity" for international cooperation in the post-shuttle era.

John Schumacher, vice president of space programs for EADS North America, told journalists that the Liberty concept "brings together the best of U.S. and European launch capabilities."

The Liberty rocket was proposed as an option for NASA development funding during the current phase of commercial crew vehicle development, but it lost out in that $269.3 million competition to four other firms that were building spacecraft: Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX. ATK hopes to partner with spaceship builders to win NASA funding in the next phase of the commercial crew development program, or CCDev.

"We're talking to everybody that we can," Rominger said. Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada have said they are initially aiming to use United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 vehicle, which is already supported by a Space Act agreement similar to ATK's. SpaceX plans to use its own Falcon 9 rocket. Rominger acknowledged that SpaceX was not in the market for Liberty, but he voiced hope that ATK could strike a deal with other spaceship companies.

"We believe pricing-wise for the performance, nobody can match what Liberty can do," he said.

Other tidbits:

  • Rominger said "our best guess" is that the first stage of the Liberty development effort would bring 300 jobs to Florida. Mango estimated that 50 individuals at NASA may be involved in the work with ATK under the Space Act agreement, but not full-time.
  • The testing schedule for Liberty depends on NASA's future awards for the next phase of CCDev, but Rominger said the rocket could be ready by the time any spaceship was ready for flight. NASA is targeting the middle of the decade as the time frame for such flights. ATK's news release says Liberty could be ready for its first test flight in 2014, leading to a crewed flight for the third launch in 2015.
  • If ATK loses out in the commercial crew vehicle competition, there would still be a business case for Liberty, "but it's not as strong," Rominger said. The rocket could also be used for launching satellites or transporting cargo to the International Space Station, he said.

More about the commercial space race:

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