Space Industry Veteran (Re)Entering The Commercial Space Race

Image: ATK

The Utah company that built the solid rocket boosters for the now retired space shuttle program announced plans to enter the next phase of American space flight with its own private launch system. Alliant Techsystems, or ATK as it is better known, says it plans to build a complete rocket and spacecraft package to transport astronauts and cargo to and from low earth orbit. The announcement adds another potential company aiming for NASA contracts as pressure from lawmakers and former astronauts is pushing to trim the selection to a single option.

The new launch system from ATK will use its Liberty rocket which was submitted as part of the NASAs current Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, but was not selected. Instead programs from SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation are participating in this round of CCDev funding and testing.

Liberty will be the name of the new program, and this time it will include a capsule spacecraft, launch abort system and the rocket itself. ATK plans to begin flight testing in 2014 and is aiming for a crew flight in 2015.

The spacecraft for the Liberty launch system is a seven seat, composite capsule that originated as a research project to see if composites could serve as an alternative to the aluminum materials NASA was using to develop the Orion spacecraft. Orion is a capsule being built by Lockheed Martin for NASA missions beyond low earth orbit, namely asteroids and eventually Mars. ATK says the composite spacecraft will land in the water and will be reusable up to 10 times.

The composite capsule being developed for ATK’s Liberty rocket. Photo: ATK

The the first stage of the Liberty rocket is powered by a solid fuel motor similar to those ATK built as the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. The new solid rocket includes a five segment motor that was initially designed to serve to launch the now defunct, Constellation spacecraft to the moon. The new Liberty rocket will use the Ariane 5 liquid fueled rocket as the second stage to boost the composite capsule into orbit. The Ariane 5 is built by the European company Astrium, and is a workhorse of the European Space Agencys launch program.

The solid rocket first stage and liquid rocket second stage puts the Liberty at 300 feet tall. The towering height is more than 110 feet taller than both the space shuttle on the launch pad or SpaceXs Falcon 9.

Like the other companies developing new launch systems, contracts from NASA arent the only thing ATK is looking at with its new launch system. The company also wants to use its Liberty system for satellite launches as well as for space tourism in the future.

A diagram showing the combination of the solid rocket booster from the space shuttle and the European Ariane 5 used to make the very tall Liberty rocket. Image:ATK

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Space Industry Veteran (Re)Entering The Commercial Space Race

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