NASA will evaluate ATK's Liberty rocket as possible manned launcher

CBS News

NASA will evaluate an upgraded, international version of a rocket originally designed for the now-canceled Constellation moon program as a potential candidate to boost manned commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station, agency officials said Tuesday.

The work will be carried out as part of an unfunded Space Act Agreement between NASA and Alliant Techsystems Inc. under the agency's Commercial Crew Development program, an Obama administration initiative to kick start development of new private sector spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

An ATK Liberty rocket rolls to the firing stand in this computer graphic. Liberty is an upgraded version of the Ares I rocket NASA was designing for the now-canceled Constellation moon program. (Credit: ATK)

"We're very interested in helping ATK and their partners in exploring whatever capability they do have and then we encourage them to go work with spacecraft providers to create those partnerships and come forward and say now they have a solution," said Ed Mango, NASA commercial crew program manager.

"Whenever that solution can meet our requirements and they can deliver crew on orbit safely, then that is the one we'll go use as soon as we can."

The 2.1-million-pound 300-foot-tall Liberty rocket features two stages. The first, provided by ATK, is a five-segment shuttle-derived solid-fuel motor developed for the Constellation program. Three five-segment boosters have been successfully test fired on the ground and 220 four-segment boosters have been successfully fired since the 1986 Challenger disaster to help boost shuttles to orbit.

Liberty's second stage, provided by Astrium, a subsidiary of the European aerospace and defense company EADS, is used as the core stage of Europe's powerful Ariane 5 rocket, the current world leader in unmanned commercial launchings. The Ariane 5 has flown 59 times, logging 45 successes in a row since a failure in 2002.

The Liberty first stage was designed from the ground up to meet NASA's stringent "human rating" requirements and the Ariane 5 core stage, with its Vulcain 2 main engine, was designed to accommodate those standards as required.

"We believe Liberty offers the safest, most reliable means of putting our crew on orbit," said Kent Rominger, a former shuttle commander who heads up ATK's program. "When I say 'our crew on orbit,' we have the capability, with 44,000 pounds of lift into LEO (low-Earth orbit), to launch any of the commercial crew vehicles that are out there to date.

"What's really fascinating with this is how well the upper stage matches up with our first stage. ... They mate up probably as well, if not better than, if we'd intentionally tried to design it that way."

Using the Astrium-built upper stage, the harmonics of the Liberty rocket are such that a phenomenon known as "thrust oscillation," which Constellation critics claimed could lead to potentially dangerous longitudinal vibrations during flight, all but disappears, Rominger said, adding that no countermeasures will be required.

The Liberty rocket dwarfs the space shuttle and Europe's Ariane 5 launcher that provide the first and second stages respectively. (Credit: ATK)
Based on company-funded studies, "Liberty's reliability and safety, particularly in the early phases (of flight), is better than Ares I, he said. "And Ares I was designed to be the most reliable, safest vehicle on the globe."

Another advantage for the ATK rocket, Rominger said, is the existing infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center. The rocket can be "stacked" in NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building using a mobile launch platform and gantry that were built as part of the Constellation program.

"There's 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, the Kennedy Space Center, right here, is set up perfectly to enable us to process Liberty, launch Liberty, not just to use the infrastructure, but the people. So we wind up bringing jobs into Florida and using the existing expertise that we've developed over the last five decades."

The Obama administration canceled the Bush administration's Constellation program in favor of a two-phase approach to space exploration. In the near term, NASA is providing seed money to encourage development of private sector spacecraft to carry crews to and from the International Space Station.

In the long term, the agency has been ordered to develop a new heavy-lift rocket that can boost NASA capsules beyond low-Earth orbit to a variety of possible destinations, ranging from the moon to nearby asteroids and, eventually, Mars.

NASA currently is in the second round of commercial crew development contracts, or CCDev-2. Four companies won contracts last April to press ahead with their spacecraft designs: Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp., Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Blue Origin.

While SpaceX plans to launch its manned Dragon capsules atop company-developed Falcon 9 rockets, the other competitors have announced plans to initially rely on the Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Atlas 5 is expected to be "man rated" by the time the manned spacecraft are ready to fly in the 2015 timeframe.

ATK submitted a proposal for a CCDev-2 contract, but was not selected by NASA.

Under the unfunded Space Act Agreement announced Tuesday, NASA will study ATK's Liberty design, "talk about their requirements, how they plan 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 the international approach," Mango said. "I personally think this international approach is an outstanding opportunity."

Rominger said if the Liberty project moves forward, the company will stage two unmanned test flights, the first in 2014, before an initial manned flight in 2015. He said the rocket will sell for around $180 million and could be used to launch unmanned cargo craft to the station, satellites or even NASA's Orion multi-purpose crew capsule.

"We showed up a little bit later than the Atlas 5, which has been flying," Rominger said. "Having said that, folks are very interested in Liberty because of the value we bring. ... We believe pricing wise, for the performance, nobody can match what Liberty can do, particularly if you look at the reliability and safety of the systems, the heritage of our systems. So we're talking to all the folks and we've had real good reception."