Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NASA and ATK Sign Commercial Crew Agreement

An artist's concept of the Liberty launcher rolling out to LC-39B atop the mobile launch platform designed for Ares I. Image source: ATK via Space.com.

NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) have signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement that enables the two entities to work together on development of the ATK/Astrium Liberty Launch System.

Click here for the NASA press release.

Click here for the ATK press release.

Liberty is a spinoff from the defunct Constellation's Ares I design. Liberty's first stage, a solid rocket motor, is based on Ares I's first stage. Liberty's second stage is based on the Ariane 5 launcher's first stage which uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

To my knowledge, no crew spacecraft in history has used a solid propellant motor as its first stage. (The Space Shuttle had three liquid main engines on the orbiter and two ATK-built solid rocket boosters.)

Liquid propellant has always been preferred for crewed flights. As discussed here, solids are easier to store and handle, and considered less expensive. But once lit, solids can't be turned off and can't be throttled in real time. Liquids can be restarted; solids can't.

Click the above arrow to watch the press conference.

I watched the press conference on NASA TV. ATK Vice-President Kent Rominger said ATK has contacted the three companies that have already expressed interest in using the Lockheed Martin Atlas V as the launcher for their commercial crew vehicles. Unless one of them can be persuaded to switch launchers, it would appear that Liberty has no crew vehicle.

NASA won't dictate the design of commercial crew systems. They will only purchase rides on the finished product. I wonder if NASA will want to put their astronauts on a vehicle atop a solid first stage.

If you want to look at this through the skeptical lens of political porkery ...

ATK's solid rocket motor operations are based in Utah. That state's senior senator is Orrin Hatch, who is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

One could view this unfunded agreement as insurance against the Utah congressional delegation trying to divert commercial crew funding to the Space Launch System. Hatch was one of five Senators who in August circulated a letter demanding NASA release the SLS design. Hatch's letter claimed that "the legal requirements for the SLS can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors."

The ATK press release quotes Rominger as saying:

"Now that we are working closely with NASA, we will also look for other funding sources to further speed the development of Liberty," said Rominger.

"Other funding" might imply they're looking for a slice of the Commercial Crew Development seed money awarded by NASA. In the press conference, NASA Commercial Crew manager Ed Mango indicated that in the next round NASA will only award money to complete integrated systems, i.e. crew vehicle and launcher. Unless ATK can find someone to place a crew vehicle atop the Liberty, it would appear ATK won't get any future seed money.

If ATK can't find a partner, will Hatch try to pass legislation forcing NASA to acquire Liberty as a commercial crew launcher? I wouldn't be surprised.

News stories about the agreement:

Space.com "NASA Inks Deal to Help Shuttle Rocket Builder Develop Space Taxis"

Salt Lake Tribune "NASA, ATK Sign Pact for Future Rocket Development"

Salt Lake Deseret News "ATK Announces Partnership with NASA for Space Flights"

Florida Today "NASA Makes Rocket Deal with ATK"

NASASpaceFlight.com "ATK Breathe Life into Liberty Via Unfunded NASA Space Act Agreement"

SpaceFlightNow.com "NASA Experts to Assist ATK on Commercial Crew Rocket"

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