ATK left out of NASA contract awards

OGDEN — ATK Space Systems in Box Elder County was bypassed Friday in its bid to win part of nearly $1.2 billion from NASA to develop a new commercial space launch system to carry American astronauts into space.

The decision leaves the future of hundreds of jobs in Box Elder County in doubt.

ATK already laid off more than 2,000 employees as the space shuttle program wound down. It hoped to avoid further layoffs by building more solid-rocket motors for its proposed manned launch system, called Liberty.

ATK spokeswoman Amanda Covington said Friday it was too early to tell what the decision means for the future of the Liberty program, which just a month ago announced major developments that ATK said made it more capable of delivering what NASA wants than anything other companies offer.

“We continue to believe Liberty provides the safest, most cost-effective crew and cargo transportation systems, as well as the fastest path to recover America’s human launch capability and engage the workforce and facilities at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Flight Center and others,” said a statement from ATK released Friday.

“We look forward to a debriefing from NASA.”

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, in whose congressional district ATK is located, said he and the rest of Utah’s congressional delegation will not take the decision lying down.

“I am disappointed and disheartened by the news that NASA has excluded ATK from the companies that were awarded the contract for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative,” Bishop said in a statement released by his office.

“I have been concerned that favoritism may be playing far too prominent a role in NASA’s decision-making process, especially with regard to companies closely tied to key NASA officials.”

Asked what favoritism Bishop is seeing, his spokeswoman, Melissa Subbotin, said Bishop was referring to a visit by President Barack Obama to Florida in November.

“On November 25, 2011, during a visit to Florida, the very first stop Obama made on his tour was a personal and private visit with Elon Musk,” she said.

“Elon Musk is also a contributor to the Obama campaign.”

In addition, she said, “Lori Garver and Charlie Bolden (NASA’s deputy administrator and administrator, respectively) visited Sierra Corporation and Elon Musk’s Hawthorne facility in the middle of sensitive source selection.”

She said those visits suggest that a favored few who received visits were among those awarded contracts Friday.

“No visit was made to ATK during the selection process, which is why Rob has concerns.”

Bishop said the Obama administration has been less than enthusiastic about the United States leading in manned space flight.

“Recently, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that, ‘I have no desire to do a Mars landing on our own,’ and that ‘The U.S. cannot always be the leader, but we can be the inspiration leader through international cooperation in space exploration,’ ” Bishop said in the statement.

“Based on these comments, I remain concerned that space leadership remains a low priority for this administration. This is just another example of how this administration has been a total disappointment.”

Bishop said he and the rest of Utah’s delegation will “further investigate every detail of how NASA arrived at (this) disappointing decision.”

Subbotin said she is being asked by many media callers what the decision means for the workers at ATK who expected Liberty to provide them jobs.

She said only ATK can answer that question.

Covington said it is too early to tell.

Liberty is ATK’s replacement for the discontinued Ares rocket that was supposed to be part of NASA’s next manned space program but was canceled by the Obama administration.

Obama chose to direct the space program toward commercial providers competing to provide launch vehicles. As part of that competition, several companies have been working on proposals, hoping to win funding for research and development.

NASA signed an unfunded agreement with ATK in September to work on Liberty, but Friday’s announcement awards millions of dollars to three other companies to continue working on their proposals.

Those companies are the Sierra Nevada Corporation, of Louisville, Colo., the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), of Hawthorne, Calif., and Boeing, of Houston.

Sierra Nevada will get $212.5 million, SpaceX will get $440 million, and Boeing will get $460 million.

SpaceX has successfully tested its launch vehicle and docked a capsule with the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing what it calls the Dream Chaser Orbital Space Vehicle, a piloted vehicle with on-board propulsion.

The Denver Post reported Friday that Sierra Nevada will immediately add several dozen jobs that had been contingent on Friday’s announcement, with the possibility of several hundred more to come.

Like SpaceX, Boeing is working on both a launch system and capsule. It is developing a seven-person capsule, dubbed the Crew Space Transportation-100, designed to fly on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

ATK Space Systems hoped to get a chunk of that because it built solid-fuel booster motors for the space shuttle for more than 30 years. Liberty is based on that experience.

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