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.

While the partnership's focus may shift to other applications for the big rocket, which was conceived as a way to transport 44,000 lb. to low Earth orbit, it has not given up on the capsule either. Originally built as a proof-of-concept article, the composite version of the aluminum Orion would use many of the same internal systems.

“We are very seriously looking at proposing on the certification phase,” Rominger says, referring to NASA's plan to run a parallel human-rating process as the CCiCap vehicles are developed (AW&ST Sept. 17, p. 16). “And when you look at the vehicle as a satellite launcher, too, it holds a lot of promise.”

For the capsule, ATK would dispense with life support and other systems needed for long-duration deep-space missions, although Rominger says it probably would carry solar arrays like the Lockheed Martin version. The biggest technical question mark is probably the launch abort system, he says.

“We're not using the launch abort system that Orion is using, which has flown,” Rominger says. “We're using a modified version of NASA's MLAS [Max Launch Abort System]. We've taken NASA's version and simplified it.”

ATK worked with NASA's Langley Research Center on the MLAS prototype, which used the company's solid-fuel rocket motors to power a side-mounted propulsion system. It was tested in flight from Wallops Island, Va., on July , 2009, with a simulated spacecraft (AW&ST July 13, 2009, p. 17).

While Gerstenmaier has told Congress the three winning CCiCap bidders—Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX—have contributed 10-20% of the cost of their vehicle development, Rominger says ATK and its partners have been willing to match the government almost dollar for dollar.

“Nobody else was even close in terms of the amount of industry investment that we brought,” he says. “I would guesstimate an order of magnitude investment [over the competition]. We were really offering NASA a cost-sharing.”

In its reevaluation of the program, ATK will also consider whether it would make sense to develop the Liberty rocket as a launcher for satellites, while holding open the possibility of lofting crews at a later date with its human-rated hardware.

“The capability basically spans from kind of a medium-level Atlas V all the way through the capabilities of the Delta IV heavy, into all orbits,” says Rominger. “Our original plan was always we're flying crew; we're doing the human-rated—safety-wise the most difficult requirements-wise mission to meet first—and then we'll back into the other missions. Obviously right now we're taking a hard look and saying 'no, it looks like satellites are probably the best first mission for us now.'”

Still, with Boeing and Sierra Nevada launching on Atlas V at first and considering themselves “launch vehicle-agnostic” after that, “we'd love to be spacecraft-agnostic,” says Rominger. Those decisions will be driven in large part by the cost of launch vehicles.

ATK says it has achieved significant cost savings in a just-completed value-stream mapping exercise at the Promontory, Utah, facility where it builds the multi-segment solid-fuel rocket motors that would drive the Liberty first stage. A more competitive launcher market would be attractive to all users, including the government.

“What we hear from these commercial companies is they believe that there's a market for their spacecraft that's beyond the government's need,” says Gerstenmaier. “They believe there's a commercial sector market for that, so even though one of these companies may provide services only to NASA for their ISS activities, the others may have another market to go to. Then I have the advantage on the government side [of] another contractor that I can go back and pick up to go provide services later for some future activity, if we decided to extend, for example, space station beyond 2020.”