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Liberty rocket emerges from shadow of defunct Ares 1

Posted: February 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON -- ATK and Astrium are joining the growing crowd of companies competing for a $200 million pot of NASA seed money to build a commercial vehicle to haul astronauts and cargo to space, proposing to combine proven U.S. and European rockets into a 300-foot-tall behemoth named Liberty.

Artist's concept of ATK's Liberty rocket rolling to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: ATK
The Liberty rocket would stack the cryogenic core stage of Europe's proven Ariane 5 launcher atop a solid-fueled motor developed for the Ares rocket. The result is a vehicle closely resembling the Ares 1, the crew launch vehicle cancelled by the U.S. government in 2010.

ATK says the privately-built rocket could be operational by 2015. And because it leans on proven rocket technology, the company claims it can launch the Liberty on a test flight by the end of 2013.

The company was hit hard last year when the White House called for the cancellation of the Constellation program, including the Ares 1 crew launcher, in which ATK had a leading role.

Some work on the Ares 1 rocket continued while Congress weighed in on the Obama administration's proposal, including a major ground test firing and preparations for another one. Despite the the Ares 1's dead-end future, ATK continued the development in hopes of applying the work to a heavy-lift rocket or a commercial program.

The Liberty rocket could deliver 44,500 pounds to the International Space Station's orbit, enough capacity to lift any crew vehicle in development, according to Kent Rominger, ATK's vice president of advanced programs.

"We can lift any potential crew vehicle out there, whether it's a space plane or a capsule," Rominger said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. "We can lift Orion, for that matter."

SpaceX, Boeing Co., Orbital Sciences Corp. and Sierra Nevada Corp. have entered the competition with crew-carrying capsule and space plane designs.

The rush of established aerospace giants and start-up firms is sparking a heated competition for the $200 million prize in the second round of NASA's Commerical Crew Development effort, dubbed CCDev 2. NASA expects to announce the winners in late March.

NASA will divide the funding to multiple winners.

The first CCDev competition awarded $50 million to five companies for design work and systems testing. The next round will seek to mature the commerical proposals, according to NASA.

"We think this launch system offers the best possible value for our nation's space program," Rominger said. "That's because it has unparalleled performance. It has a good track record on the first stage and the second stage."

Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK space launch systems, also touted Liberty's reuse of existing rocket designs and proven flight experience.

"The Liberty initiative provides tremendous value because it builds on European Ariane 5 launcher heritage, while allowing NASA to leverage the mature first stage," Precourt said in an ATK press release.

ATK has test-fired two Ares 1 five-segment solid rocket motors for NASA, and a third static test is scheduled later this year. The upgraded Ares motor is based on the space shuttle's solid rocket booster, which has a spotless flight record over the last 23 years.

Built by EADS Astrium, the Ariane 5 rocket is the world's leading commercial satellite launcher, having flown 41 straight successful missions with communications satellites and European institutional payloads.

The Liberty rocket would blast off from Kennedy Space Center on 3.1 million pounds of thrust from ATK's Ares solid rocket, then the Ariane's hydrogen-fueled Vulcain 2 engine would ignite to accelerate crews into low Earth orbit.

ATK would base Liberty launch operations at existing KSC facilities, utilizing retired space shuttle infrastructure and the new mobile launch platform partially constructed for the Ares 1 rocket.

The Liberty rocket would tower twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

"We will provide unmatched payload performance at a fraction of the cost, and we will launch it from the Kennedy Space Center using facilities that have already been built," Precourt said. "This approach allows NASA to utilize the investments that have already been made in our nation's ground infrastructure and propulsion systems for the space exploration program."

The Liberty launch vehicle combines space shuttle and Ares 1 rocket designs with Europe's workhorse Ariane 5 rocket. Credit: ATK
Both stages of the Liberty were designed to be human-rated. The Ares 1 was supposed to be NASA's next crew launch vehicle, and the European Space Agency planned to launch its piloted Hermes space plane on Ariane 5 rockets before that project was terminated.

According to Rominger, there would be very few changes to adapt ATK's five-segment motor for the Liberty program. Engineers at Snecma of France must prove the Ariane 5's Vulcain 2 engine can be ignited in flight. Astrium would also beef up the thickness of the stage's skin for potential Liberty rocket flights, Rominger said.

The companies have been pursuing the Liberty concept for about a year, but its roots are in a proposal for NASA's exploration architecture study in 2005.

ATK and Astrium's Liberty proposal would compete for commercial crew launch opportunities with the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket and SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster. Those vehicles are already flying with unmanned payloads, but ATK says the Liberty can lift more mass to space than both rockets and is less expensive than the Atlas 5.

"This team represents the true sense of international partnership in that we looked across borders to find the best for our customers," said Blake Larson, president of ATK aerospace systems group. "Together we combine unique flight-proven systems and commercial experience that allows us to offer the market's most capable launch vehicle along with flexibility to meet a wide variety of emerging needs. Liberty provides greater performance at less cost than any other comparable launch vehicle."

Rominger said ATK foresees a commercial crew and cargo market for up to nine launches per year for the Liberty rocket. If NASA chooses to fund the Liberty program, it will bring 400 jobs to ATK's Utah solid motor factory and 300 launch site positions in Florida.

The company expects to sell Liberty flights for less than $180 million each, Rominger said. ATK is not disclosing the Liberty rocket's total development cost.

ATK is also partnering with United Space Alliance and L-3 Communications for ground operations and first stage avionics, according to the company's press release.

NASA is already zeroing in on ATK's five-segment solid rocket motor to boost the agency's Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket for deep space exploration missions.

"We are right in the middle of heavy-lift, a NASA program that's crucial to our nation's future in spaceflight. At the same time, we are now proposing commercially for the crew vehicle," Rominger said. "The neat thing is both of those are synergistic with the five-segment solid. What we're doing commercially benefits NASA with heavy-lift, and vice versa."