October 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: ATK
Frank Morring, Jr. Washington
ATK Aerospace Systems and its partners have not given up on the Liberty launch vehicle they proposed as the next route to the International Space Station for NASA astronauts.
NASA rejected the company's proposal as insufficiently detailed compared with the three it ultimately selected for Space Act agreements. But the Liberty partnership offered to spend “an order of magnitude” more of its own money on development than the competition, and it may use its deep pockets to continue the work on its own. Ultimately the Liberty team might find itself launching some of the commercial crew vehicles that beat it out in NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contest.
Like SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, ATK proposed a new launcher and crew capsule. The Liberty rocket would be a combination of the five-segment solid-fuel first stage that ATK developed for NASA's abandoned Ares I crew launcher, with an Ariane 5 main stage serving as the launcher's upper stage.
Riding atop it would be an all-composite version of the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle Lockheed Martin developed to ride on the Ares I, and continues to build for the planned heavy-lift Space Launch System (see page 44). But NASA evaluators found the partnership's plans for combining all of the elements too vague.
The “proposal did not include enough data to understand the spacecraft baseline configuration that would serve as the starting point, the system changes planned to bring this spacecraft to the Liberty baseline or how heritage systems will be modified and integrated to enable a [crew transportation system] capability,” wrote Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier, who selected the CCiCap winners in his role as chief of NASA's human exploration and operations mission directorate.
Gerstenmaier also noted that ATK's “significant financial investment” compared to the other bidders “gave me confidence in the company's commitment to this activity.” That commitment may continue, says the ATK executive in charge of the effort.
“We are regrouping, circling the wagons, looking at what makes the most sense,” says Kent Rominger, a former space shuttle commander who is ATK's vice president for strategy and business development and the Liberty program manager.