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Liberty illuustration
An illustration of the ATK/EADS Astrium Liberty launch vehicle heading to the pad at KSC. (credit:ATK)

Commercial crew providers aplenty (part 1)


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The historic rendezvous and docking of the SpaceX capsule Dragon with the International Space Station on May 25 ushered in a new era of commercial spaceflight services. This flight was part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, established to foster private sector involvement in providing services to NASA to support the ISS. This mission, a development and demonstration flight, was all the more impressive because, from start to finish, there was hardly a glitch during this first attempt. This speaks volumes about the caliber of people working at SpaceX. There were several delays in launching the Falcon 9 rocket, but those delays were needed to ensure the launch vehicle was in perfect shape to get the Dragon capsule to its intended orbit. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was beside himself in admiration for the men and women who made it possible.

The ATK five-segment RSRM with the Astrium upper stage would be capable of delivering over 20,000 kilograms (44,500 pounds) to the orbit of the ISS.

The Dragon capsule carried some cargo supplies for the ISS, and also used to return a variety of non-descript cargo back to Earth. However, the goal of SpaceX is to also provide NASA the capability of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS in the future. SpaceX is one of several companies proposing launch vehicles and capsules to provide crew transportation services to the space agency. While NASA will have invested $800 million in the COTS program from 2006 through 2012 in SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for cargo delivery, it plans to spend several times that developing a crew capability, with several companies, both large and small, competing with SpaceX for awards. One company, though, is able to leverage work done on a now-canceled NASA program to support its bid to win funding for a commercial crew transportation system.

ATK, Ares I, and Liberty

As part of the Constellation program, NASA planned the development of two new launch vehicles. The Ares I was developed and based on reusable solid rocket motor (RSRM) boosters similar to those used for the Space Shuttle, built by Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The other launch vehicle was the Ares V, designed to boost heavy payloads beyond low Earth orbit and also making use of ATK’s solid rocket motors. In October 2009, the Ares I-X launched successfully on the first—and only—development test flight of the program. The Ares I was conceived to be the crew launch vehicle as part of the initial phase of the Constellation program.

However, the Obama Administration announced in February 2010 that the Constellation program could not possibly achieve its stated goals within its operating and projected budget and would have to be cancelled. Apart from the political ramifications over budget, momentum for further development by NASA of the Ares I launch vehicle was effectively lost. NASA and ATK had invested heavily in the development of this new launch vehicle, and interesting developments to save it in some form began to take shape, with impetus from the 2010 National Space Policy and its emphasis on commercialization. Internally, ATK initiated the Liberty Launch System program that year, utilizing the five-segment solid rocket motor originally planned for the Ares I. The company entered into negotiations with European aerospace firm EADS Astrium to supply the core stage of the Ariane 5 rocket , powered by the Vulcain 2 engine, to be the Liberty’s upper stage.

In February 2011, ATK and Astrium announced the Liberty Launch Initiative in response to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development-2 procurement. The ATK five-segment RSRM with the Astrium upper stage would be capable of delivering over 20,000 kilograms (44,500 pounds) to the orbit of the ISS. Liberty would be launched from Complex 39 and from its dedicated launch platform, with a Launch Umbilical Tower designed specifically to supply it.

While ATK did not win a funded Space Act Agreement from NASA as part of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) program in the spring of 2011, NASA and ATK signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) in September that permitted the exchange of information to support development the Liberty Launch System. That agreement also covered the development of a crew capsule to go atop the Liberty launch vehicle. Kent Rominger, ATK vice-president and program manager for Liberty, stated at the time, “This SAA enables us to exchange information with NASA and receive valuable insight as we develop our fixed-price commercial crew vehicle and prepare it for test flight as early as 2014.” ATK was also looking for Liberty to serve various commercial markets, including crew, cargo, and government satellite markets. Being unfunded by NASA, ATK would bear the cost of this phase of Liberty’s development, and “…would look to other funding sources to further speed the development of Liberty.”

These two concepts—SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon, and ATK’s Liberty—demonstrate the wide range of not just technical approaches to commercial crew transportation, but the companies and corporate cultures involved.

In January of this year, ATK held its Launch System Initial Systems Design Review, which completed the third of five milestones of the SAA with NASA for the Commercial Crew Development Program. In May, the company unveiled the design for its overall commercial crew launch vehicle concept, which now included the capsule and abort system. Liberty’s partners now include Lockheed Martin, who would provide design and development support for the crew spacecraft. Perhaps the most innovative element of the design is the Composite Crew Module, to be fabricated and assembled at ATK’s Iuka, Mississippi, facility and tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center. The updated launch schedule includes test launches in 2014 with the first possible crewed mission set for 2015, provided Liberty wins funding from NASA this summer in the latest round of the CCDev program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap).

In viewing the company’s promotional videos for the Liberty launch vehicle on its corporate website, the disparity in the ages of personnel at ATK and those at SpaceX could not be more apparent. Most of the men in the videos are veterans of ATK in senior positions, with most likely decades of experience they are contributing to the Liberty program. One female engineer shown is far younger. There is much to be said for such deep work experience in the development of Liberty. On the other hand, SpaceX, which is arguably the youngest launch vehicle and space capsule manufacturer in America, succeeded in getting the Dragon capsule to dock with the ISS on the very first attempt.

These two concepts—SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon, and ATK’s Liberty—demonstrate the wide range of not just technical approaches to commercial crew transportation, but the companies and corporate cultures involved. These two companies are not the only ones, though, interested in commercial crew. Part 2 will examine yet another competitor for these services.


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