Canceled NASA Rocket Could Return as Part of Low-Cost Space Taxi


ATK, Astrium Unveil Liberty Launch Vehicle Initiative

An artist’s conception of the proposed Liberty rocket, which would combine components of the Ares I and Ariane 5 rockets.

That is the plan of Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis — the aerospace company more commonly known as ATK, which manufacturers the solid rocket motors for NASA’s space shuttles — and Astrium, a European company that builds Ariane 5 rockets, which are used to launch satellites. The two will announce on Tuesday what is essentially a commercial version of the Ares I, the expensive NASA rocket that Congress and the Obama administration canceled last year.

The Ares I, part of a bloated NASA program to send astronauts back to the moon, could become a success story in the Obama administration’s effort to shape a more affordable space program with the help of the private sector. NASA’s so-called commercial crew program is seeking companies to build and operate space taxis to take astronauts to the International Space Station.

The new rocket, named Liberty, would be much cheaper than the Ares I, because the unfinished NASA-designed upper stage of the Ares I would be replaced with the first stage of the Ariane 5, which has been launched successfully 41 consecutive times. The lower stage of the Liberty, a longer version of the shuttle booster built by ATK, would be almost unchanged from the Ares I.

Most of the companies competing for NASA’s space taxi business, like Boeing and the Orbital Sciences Corporation, are looking at using a low-end version of the Atlas V rocket built by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ATK hopes the Liberty can take business away from the United Launch Alliance with a greater lift capability (44,500 pounds to low-Earth orbit) at a cost (less than $180 million) it says is lower than that of the Atlas V.

The Liberty could also solve other issues. Launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, it would generate about 300 jobs and make use of facilities that might otherwise sit idle after the space shuttles are retired this year. The Atlas V launches from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force station.

ATK is seeking part of $200 million that NASA will distribute next month for commercial crew efforts. The Liberty’s first test launching could take place in 2013, and it could be ready to carry astronauts two years later.

ATK and Astrium also hope the rocket can compete for future contracts for space station cargo. With an eventual four to six launchings a year, the Liberty could also help reduce the cost of the heavy-lift rocket that NASA is to develop for deep-space missions. The current design of the heavy-lift calls for the same solid rocket motors as the Liberty.

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