Thursday, April 21, 2016

Orbital ATK Looks at VAB

A 2012 ATK promotional video for Liberty. Video source: atk YouTube channel.

NASA issued a press release today announcing negotiations with Orbital ATK to use Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building and a mobile launch platform.

NASA has selected Orbital ATK Inc. of Dulles, Virginia, to begin negotiations on an agreement to use High Bay 2 in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The prospective property use agreement, which also will include a mobile launcher platform, reflects Kennedy’s transformation to a multi-user spaceport supporting both government and commercial organizations.

“Over the past few years, the people of Kennedy have worked diligently to transform the center. We are now a true multi-user spaceport supporting a variety of different partners successfully,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy director. “We look forward to working with Orbital ATK in the future to help expand the capabilities of this unique, historic asset.”

NASA will remain the primary user of the VAB for the Space Launch System and Orion programs. If an agreement is negotiated, NASA will act as the overall site operator for the facility.

The potential agreement is the result of a competitive Announcement for Proposals the agency released in June 2015.

The June 2015 press release clarifies the mobile launcher in question would be one of the three originals from the 1960s, not the new tower for Space Launch System.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has released an announcement for proposals (AFP) for private companies interested in using its Vehicle Assembly Building, High Bay 2 (VAB HB2) for assembly, integration and testing of launch vehicles.

In addition to VAB HB2, the center has three Mobile Launcher Platforms (MLPs) available for reuse in commercial space operations. This announcement supports Kennedy’s transformation to a multi-user spaceport that effectively utilizes assets identified in the center’s 20-year Master Plan.

James Dean of Florida Today broke the story earlier today. Orbital is interested in using the facility for a potential future military launch vehicle.

Pairing a solid-fueled booster with a liquid-fueled upper stage provided by Blue Origin, Orbital ATK’s proposed rocket aims to win Air Force certification to launch national security missions for which only ULA and SpaceX are now eligible to compete.

Orbital ATK says the large rocket would not displace the company’s smaller Antares rocket launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Air Force earlier this year awarded Orbital ATK $47 million to study its new rocket concept as part of a broader program developing domestic alternatives to the Russian RD-180 engine flown by ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which launches most U.S. military missions.

SpaceX, ULA and Aerojet Rocketdyne also won contracts to study new propulsion systems.

Though not fully defined, Orbital ATK’s concept echoes the Liberty rocket that ATK — prior to its 2014 merger with Orbital Sciences — proposed for launches of International Space Station cargo and crews.

Liberty was a ham-handed attempt by ATK in 2012 to win a NASA commercial crew contract, even though it hadn't participated in earlier rounds of competition like other bidders. The artist's concepts showed Liberty using KSC's existing infrastructure, hoping the government agency would subsidize their use to give the legacy architecture a purpose. That strategy failed.

2012 conceptual images of the ATK Liberty. Original source: ATK via

The Liberty design proposed using a single-stage solid rocket booster similar to the cancelled Constellation Ares I. The independent Government Accountability Office issued a report in August 2009 concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.” The report found “significant technical and design challenges” with Ares I, including vibration during launch and the risk of hitting the launch tower during liftoff. Unlike a liquid-fueled booster, a solid-fueled stage cannot be turned off once lit.

When ATK didn't get a commercial crew contract, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), whose district includes ATK, alleged that President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolden conspired to give one contract to SpaceX due to a supposed personal relationship with founder Elon Musk. Bishop provided no evidence, of course, just a smear.

Despite promises to press on, in January 2013 an ATK official stated the company would not proceed with Liberty unless it received $300 million in external funding from a government agency, either the United States or overseas.

ATK and Orbital Sciences announced in April 2014 that the two companies would merge, a marriage consummated in February 2015.

Solid-fueled boosters are not used by any commercial launch company, to my knowledge, anywhere on Planet Earth. To quote from the Aerospace Corporation web site:

Liquid- and solid-fuel rockets each have special capabilities, advantages, and applications. For military purposes the “rifle-readiness” of solid rocket motors gives them an advantage over liquid rockets. There is no need to lose the precious minutes required for fueling liquid propellants with a solid motor.

Liquid rockets are often preferred for space missions because of their more efficient use of propellants. Because of their high thrust and simplicity, however, solid-fuel rockets are also used with space launch vehicles. Some launch vehicles, such as the space shuttle, combine both liquid engines and solid motors.

The Space Shuttle design in the early 1970s went with solid-fueled boosters to reduce cost, not necessarily because they were preferable for human spaceflight.

NASA's current Space Launch System must use ATK solid rocket boosters on its first two flights because that design was mandated by Congress in 2010 when it created SLS. NASA was required by Congress to use existing Shuttle and Constellation technology and contractors, where possible. No other nation uses solids to launch people.

Liberty, in my opinion, was an attempt by an OldSpace company to get the government to pay for its commercial spaceflight operations. That attempt failed. This new effort sounds like another attempt to get the government to subsidize the company's operations, this time for a military launch vehicle.

More affordable and less dangerous options are available with other commercial companies.

So I won't be holding my breath waiting for Franken-Liberty to roll out of High Bay 2 any time soon.

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