Will ATK beat everyone into space?

By Phil Plait | May 10, 2012 10:57 am

Right now, the future of US human space exploration is a little unsettled. NASA is still talking about building a new rocket system to replace the Shuttle, but it’s unclear how long it will take and how much it will cost. Space X is a private company that has already launched rockets into orbit, and is working to make their vehicles rated to carry humans (there are strict rules about that, which I’ll get to in a sec). They’re planning an uncrewed launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon space capsule to the space station for May 19, which is a massive step in their plans to be the go-to company for launches.

Other companies are working on this as well. Jeff Bezos — billionaire creator of Amazon.com — has Blue Origin, a secretive group that is looking to launch sub-orbital and eventually orbital vehicles. Sierra Nevada is working on the Dream Chaser, another orbital vehicle (and they’re pretty far along with it, too). Orbital Sciences plans two test launches this year, including a pass of the space station as well.

And now ATK steps up. I’ve heard about their Liberty rocket, but I haven’t been sure where they stand with it. Well, now we know: ATK has announced it will be ready to put humans into orbit by 2015, potentially ahead of Space X.

[Note: image above is artwork; the rocket is not yet built. Click to liftoffenate. Credit: ATK.]

ATK — a company with a complicated history of mergers and name changes, but with solid rocket experience — has the wherewithal to come through on this claim. The tech they use for Liberty is based on the now-canceled NASA Ares rocket as well as the European Ariane V vehicle. They’ve built rockets before (part of the company’s legacy is Morton Thiokol, which built the solid rocket boosters for the Shuttle) so this isn’t out of the blue.


The new part of all this is that they’re designing a crew capsule for the rocket. It’s similar to NASA’s Orion capsule, but built of lighter weight composite materials (instead of Orion’s aluminum). It will be designed to take astronauts to the space station, and stay docked there for up to six months. The capsule and rocket could be tested as soon as early 2015, with a crewed launch later that year.

If true, this adds pressure to Space X’s already difficult schedule. There have been delays in the current mission to the space station, but Space X and NASA have both said these delays are due to caution, and not to any inherent problems. Given the nature of the flight — the first time they’ll have a commercial launch to the station and have their Dragon capsule dock with it — caution is warranted.

Still, from what I’ve heard, 2015 is the earliest Space X will be able to launch humans. The reason it will take so long is because there are strict requirements from NASA when launching humans into space. One of the most stringent is the launch abort system: a way to get the crew safely away from the rocket if there is a catastrophic failure of the system (like, say, the rocket exploding underneath them). The escape system basically consists of the capsule disengaging from the rocket, and then a small rocket on top of the capsule firing that will very rapidly pull them away from the area. This sort of system puts a lot of stress and strain on the capsule, so there must be a lot of testing of it to make sure it works.

So what does all this mean? Well, if the timelines everyone is reporting stay true, it means America will have the capability to put humans in space in about three years. Who does it first is now anyone’s guess. There will be some cachet in being the first to do this: after all, it will be the first time we’ve been able to launch astronauts ourselves after a four year gap. The media will be all over it.

And in the more immediate term, NASA has money to give to these commercial ventures, to the tune of a half-billion dollars. They’re all competing for it, and there may be awards as soon as August of this year (assuming Congress and the White House can cure their own cranial-rectal inversion and fund NASA they way it should be funded).

… but in the long run, we all win. Seriously. Competition is, generally, good, and with so many companies vying to get people into orbit, costs will come down, technology will leap forward, and — I hope, after a lot of broken promises over the past few decades — access to space will become easier.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Piece of mind, Space

Comments (46)

  1. AliCali

    How great would it be to see three or four private companies launching satellites and humans all year? Imagine launches becoming routine (and hopefully safe). With airplanes, the world got smaller. With these spacecraft, the solar system becomes just a little smaller.

    Also, Dr. Plait wrote that ATK has “solid rocket experience.” I can read that phrase as ATK having solid experience with rockets or I can read that as ATK having experience with solid rockets. Maybe it’s both?

  2. here

    The Shuttle seemed to forgo the escape system requirement in some phases of flight; I hope, they don’t play fast and loose on this issue again.

    Unfortunately, there have been lingering questions about the Ares I escape system’s ability to ensure crew safety. Anyone have an idea on where this issue stands?

  3. IdeaInvestor

    _”solid_ rocket experience” nice one!

  4. Keith Hearn

    Their schedule says 2015, but they haven’t built anything yet? Given that they’ll have the same hurdles to jump getting man-rated that SpaceX is going through, I see no reason why they should do it more quickly.

    My money is still on the horse that is already out of the gate and headed down the back straight, not the horse that’s still on it’s way to the starting gate.

  5. Benjamin

    In the same paragraph where you talk about SpaceX and the launch abort system, then you describe it in part with: “…and then a small rocket on top of the capsule firing…”. I suppose you’re talking about the actual standard launch abort system and not SpaceX’s approach, which consists of side-wall mounted hydrazine super thrusters that are an integral part of the capsule and can be used for a ground vertical landing also if not used for abort.

  6. Paul

    Solid rockets for launch of crews is a horrible idea. Let’s hope this pork-motivated monstrosity stays on the powerpoint slides.

  7. TerryS.

    My money is on SpaceX beating ATK by years. This news item reeks of propaganda.

    Is NASA going to be overly cautious about SpaceX, but just rubber stamp ATX’s “similar to NASA’s Orion” crew capsule. Hmmm, don’t think so!

  8. AliCali says:How great would it be to see three or four private companies launching satellites and humans all year? Imagine launches becoming routine (and hopefully safe).

    And team that up with Bigelow Aerospace (and others, I’m sure) putting private space stations into orbit… I have to take care of my health, so I can live to see as much of this as possible!

  9. Tom

    Why is it that the private spaceflight scene seems to have exploded only over the last decade or so?

  10. Jim Johnson

    Thanks for the update on the race, Phil!

  11. UmTutSut

    Keith Hearn wrote: “Their schedule says 2015, but they haven’t built anything yet?”

    Not exactly true. They’ve built, and successfully tested, the five-segment solid booster that was supposed to be the Ares first stage and now would be the Liberty first stage. And Astrium’s built many an Ariane 5.

    My .02 zlotys: I rather like the idea of using proven components.

  12. Borecrawler

    Regarding this comment: My money is on SpaceX beating ATK by years. This news item reeks of propaganda.

    Not only has much of this architecture been designed and built (for the shuttle and other programs), but Both ATK and Astrium also have launched a tremendous number of flights with the basic first and second stage hardware under their belts and both have man-rated experience. I think they are at an advantage here also due to the fact that they already know what hoops to jump through with NASA’s stringent requirements. If anyone can get there quickly, this team can. It was also a wise move to include Lockheed Martin on the spacecraft. I believe they may show SpaceX how experienced experts get it done.

  13. Calli Arcale

    Tom: because, for the first time, there is an actual, concrete prize to be won: the right to ferry crews and cargos to the ISS. It’s obviously unleashed a torrent of desire to do just this sort of thing.

    One correction to the article: ATK is only partially designing the crew capsule. They are partnering with Lockheed Martin on it, and it’s resemblance to Orion is more than superficial. In fact, it’s basically a lightweight Orion that had existed on paper for some time, being developed by Lockheed and ATK back under the Constellation program as a NASA-directed alternative to the deep space Orion variant. It was cancelled along with Ares 1, as NASA was no longer going to be carrying folks to the ISS but was instead going to be buying those flights. Liberty is very much the Son of Ares 1, though with an Ariane V core instead of a Shuttle-derived upper stage. That actually gives it an advantage, since that Shuttle-derived upper stage still needed to be developed.

    I’d be cautious about betting on them beating SpaceX; it’s a realistic possibility, but I’d like to see the air-start Vulcain 2 test firings go off without a hitch next year before deciding who to bet on. I’m also unclear on exactly how far along the composite Orion is; that could still end up being the long leg in this, even though development isn’t starting from scratch, and they’re partnered with a company that certainly has the resources to do it (Lockheed Martin).

  14. I’d like to see what Phil thinks of REL:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reaction_Engines_Limited
    In my opinion, they have got the coolest technology out there. The SABRE engine is just the most badass engine ever designed, and they have a prototype now. They may be operating on a longer time scale than all the other rocket-based companies, but if they succeed, they will truly change the face of what it is like to go into space.

  15. KC

    It’s hard to excited about this – this is still basically the same kludge of parts that made Ares such a scary machine (the Air Force concluded that an abort 30–60 seconds after launch would have a ~100% chance of killing all crew!).

  16. lunchstealer

    What, ultimately, was the verdict on Morton Thiokol’s culpability in the Challenger loss? Clearly their design was flawed for low ambient temperatures at launch time, but I also seem to recall it was a Morton Thiokol engineer who brought up the problem with NASA, only to be overruled with ‘go fever’. Does anyone remember the details on who was involved in the decision to ignore the danger and launch during cold weather at that time?

  17. Nic

    I’m not convinced re the relatively short time frame. Boeing (CST-100), Lockheed (Orion), SpaceX have capsules that have at least done drop tests. SpaceX have done a full orbital flight AND got it back.
    A lot of testing will have to go into launch abort testing for all once the systems exist, but again these three are on the way.

    ATK? For the moment I will assume it’s made of cardboard and has no complete avionics, launch abort systems, anything.
    This is propaganda. I want to see SpaceX make it, and I applaud their caution in the ISS flight.
    I don’t know why however they haven’t launched anything since Dec ’10. That is odd.

    N

  18. MadScientist

    Given Orbital Science’s launch record it’ll be a nice day in hell before I fly with them.

    @Nic#19: Since ATK are working with EADS/Astrium and Lockheed this may be more than just propaganda. How well they can work together remains to be seen, but I’d imagine Astrium would be pretty keen to sell rockets into the US launch market.

    @Alikali#1: That’ll be Solid Rocket Boosters – they bought out the Morton-Thiokol group years ago. If you’re old enough you might remember hearing of Thiokol when a storage facility in Utah went *kablooie* and left a huge hole in the ground. It was a few years of bad luck for the US space industry which included failures on launchpads (and severe damage to the launch structures) and the Challenger tragedy.

  19. FredS

    Nice to see another entrant, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.

    That’s a HECK of an ambitious schedule. Ok, that’s the norm these days. I’s a best case schedule if they run into no problems at all. In reality, they’ll run into the same number of issues as their competition. Multiply that schedule by 2 or 3 to get more realistic timeline.

    They really want to launch people with this? Developing an effective launch abort system for these solid rocket boosters will be orders of magnitude more difficult than existing systems, largely because a solid failure can send high temperature bits faster than current abort systems can detect a failure and escape the blast zone. Have they solved this? If so, that qualifies as an “extraordinary claim” requiring extraordinary proof.

    The main reason this doesn’t pass the smell test – SpaceX. At current SpaceX pricing the Chinese can’t compete, how in the world will Liberty? I’m always happy to see new entrants, but going head to head with SpaceX? That just seems nuts. It makes me wonder what the real story is here.

  20. Trebuchet

    Not impressed. All they’ve done is regenerate an artist’s conception of Ares I. No doubt with the same technology that wasn’t particularly viable to start with.

    And, just to repeat what others said, this is the same company that killed the Challenger astronauts. Their engineers said there was a problem with the low temperatures, but as I recall their management told NASA it was ok to launch.

  21. Grand Lunar

    -“They’re all competing for it, and there may be awards as soon as August of this year (assuming Congress and the White House can cure their own cranial-rectal inversion and fund NASA they way it should be funded)”

    That’s a mighty big assumption, Phil.

    It seems to me that the only concern Congress and the White House have over space is the number of votes it wins them and how it sits with their respective lobbyists and special interest groups.

    Other than that, they probably couldn’t care less.

  22. Ian

    “Will ATK beat everyone…”

    No. Because they and their partners are old, non-agile space dinosaurs. They don’t have it in their DNA to beat anyone without a 4x budget overrun and a Congressional Sugar Daddy.

    The only way these guys will beat SpaceX is if NASA gives them a “get out of safety free” card. Which we know has happened in the past.

  23. DrFlimmer

    I strongly dislike the SRB design. That’s also why I didn’t like the Ares rockets. SRBs are far more dangerous than a liquid fuel motor, since the latter can be shut off. A SRB keeps on burning as long as there is propellant – there’s no way to stop it.

    Another point is that a five-segmented booster has not been tested in flight, yet. It behaves quite differently than the four-segmented booster from the shuttle. In that respect, they are not any further down the road than, say, SpaceX. At least, SpaceX has an operational rocket that has proven its capabilities.

  24. Joseph

    Have you seen / heard of these guys?

    http://www.copenhagensuborbitals.com/

    Some fun & exciting videos of test launches around the web if you look.

  25. Hrune

    Launching people on solids is not a very safe idea. You can’t shut the engine down, you can’t test it beforehand (because you can’t shut it down), basically whole engine is one huge pressure chamber that will blow up when there’s a fault anywhere, oxidiser and fuel are premixed…

    I’d take a SpaceX ride, thank you. Or even better a Skylon (if it gets ever done).

  26. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    ATK — a company with a complicated history of mergers and name changes, but with solid rocket experience

    Do they hope also to make liquid-fuelled rockets? ;-)

  27. JMW

    The one thing I don’t want to see is NASA picking a company to be “exclusive provider of launch services to NASA”.

    To my thinking, NASA should schedule their missions whenever they want, and contract to whomever is ready to launch in that window.

    The benefits to this (again IMHO) would be
    – it still allows multiple companies to flourish and make their technologies more mature
    – it allows NASA to be more flexible in the timing of missions.

    The reasoning
    – Allowing time for companies to refine their technology will determine, in the long run, who has the most cost-effective and safe technology. If you pick one winner out of the gate, you lose the opportunity for someone to catch up and pass on the back stretch…or even the final stretch.
    – One of the major issues about the shuttle was that it was supposed to have a fast turnaround, and didn’t. By contracting with multiple companies, NASA doesn’t force a company to try to do something it couldn’t. NASA could launch with SpaceX one launch, and then turn around and use ATK for the next launch a month later, while SpaceX is still sorting out and readying for their next launch.

  28. Sam Regenbogen

    @1,
    Orbital Sciences is publicly traded. As far as I know it’s the only space company (not counting Lockheed and its ilk) available for investing in.

  29. Sonny

    We still need to know more about the Moon, I remember one ststment ( weathe true or not ) after going around the Moon said the Moon back sid ( away from the Earth ) was jaged or not smooth!! What is the fact ? I don’t remember any other follow up.

  30. Michael Mullen

    As is made clear in this BBC article:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18017216

    ATK are only saying they can achieve this date is if they get made a preferred system by NASA and qualify for CCDev funding.
    This is the same idea that failed with Ares-1, taking existing parts and rearranging them into a new vehicle. It sounds like it should be simpler and quicker but experience tells us otherwise.

  31. Brian Too

    @27. Hrune,

    I believe I’ve heard of a hybrid SRB design, where the oxidizer was external to the fuel and fed in via pumps? The idea was that you could throttle up and down and even turn the engine completely off. Not sure how far this idea ever got though.

  32. Zach

    Not that I am by any means a fan of ATK, but I would not count them out. They have a lot of DoD money and a lot of sway in DC. They are also quite experienced in cooperating with other companies and government standards.

  33. Das Boese

    I’m sorry to say it, but this is not at all a credible effort to improve access to space… it’s a transparent attempt to keep the Constellation pork flowing by different means, to bridge the gap until SLS (aka the Rocket To Nowhere) supposedly becomes operational.

    I’ll add that nearly all the press releases and public announcements about Liberty have come solely from ATK, while there has been conspicuous silence on the part of their European “partners”.

    In any case one has to ask themselves why NASA would spend any money on a reboot of the failed Ares I concept with a foreign upper stage, instead of either teaming up with ESA to man-rate the dead-reliable Ariane 5, or a domestic liquid rocket like Atlas, Delta or Falcon.

  34. MaDeR

    This rocket is like frankenstein zombie. It. Just. Won’t. Die!

  35. beer case

    #36: Ariane 5 did explode on it’s maiden voyage. Although caused by a software bug of all things..

  36. vince charles

    4. Keith Hearn Said:
    May 10th, 2012 at 11:20 am

    “Their schedule says 2015, but they haven’t built anything yet? Given that they’ll have the same hurdles to jump getting man-rated that SpaceX is going through, I see no reason why they should do it more quickly.

    My money is still on the horse that is already out of the gate and headed down the back straight, not the horse that’s still on it’s way to the starting gate.”

    No. Three entities (NASA, LockMart/ATK, and Bigelow) have worked on lightweight Orion capsules. Depending on what aspects you’re considering, NASA arguably got the farthest along, Bigelow the least far.

    You’re also forgetting that both the SRB and Ariane 5 were man-rated at some point- understandable, but still forgotten.

  37. vince charles

    21. FredS Said:
    May 10th, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    “The main reason this doesn’t pass the smell test – SpaceX. At current SpaceX pricing the Chinese can’t compete, how in the world will Liberty?”

    No, SpaceX’s *projected* pricing for a paper rocket beats the Chinese. If you’re familiar with SpaceX’s history, you’ll remember them failing to meet their price projections, just like everyone else. In particular, the Falcon 9 Heavy requires a fairly basic redesign of the engine- a redesign in the expensive direction, not the cheap direction.

  38. vince charles

    24. Ian Said:
    May 11th, 2012 at 12:27 am

    ““Will ATK beat everyone…”

    No. Because they and their partners are old, non-agile space dinosaurs. They don’t have it in their DNA to beat anyone without a 4x budget overrun and a Congressional Sugar Daddy.”

    ATK’s multiple commercial divisions would beg to differ. If the project selects managers from such divisions, I’d give them a chance. If they select their managers based on “tradition,” then yes, I’d say you’re right.

    Oh, and this is without considering the Ariane 5’s track record in the comsat market. Not as good as, say, Ariane 3, but that still answers the question at hand, doesn’t it?

  39. vince charles

    25. DrFlimmer Said:
    May 11th, 2012 at 3:04 am

    “I strongly dislike the SRB design. That’s also why I didn’t like the Ares rockets. SRBs are far more dangerous than a liquid fuel motor, since the latter can be shut off. A SRB keeps on burning as long as there is propellant – there’s no way to stop it.

    Another point is that a five-segmented booster has not been tested in flight, yet.”

    No. The Air Force has solids it can shut down at will. It’s more complicated than a “plain old” solid, but they fly regularly. I’ve even heard of throttleable solid tests. Again, more involved, but they did indeed throttle. Ain’t progress grand?

    Also, the five-segment booster flew just fine, as UmTutSut (#13) pointed out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqRqpG5G5Iw&feature=related

    There are plenty of legitimate complaints about the SRB and its derivatives, but “has not been tested in flight, yet” ain’t one of ‘em.

  40. vince charles

    29. JMW Says:
    May 11th, 2012 at 6:19 am

    “By contracting with multiple companies, NASA doesn’t force a company to try to do something it couldn’t. NASA could launch with SpaceX one launch, and then turn around and use ATK for the next launch a month later, while SpaceX is still sorting out and readying for their next launch.”

    You’re forgetting that all these companies are chasing the same business. One company getting a launch necessarily means the rest aren’t, and one or more will go out of business. Sure, Bigelow wants to buy rides too, but that still won’t keep all of these entrants above water.

    You’re also forgetting about economies of scale. If three companies are competing at the scale of individual flights, then by definition one “winner” company could instead be launching three times as often. This is partly why Soyuz, Proton, etc. are competitive rockets. They launch often enough to reap scaling effects, enough to counter some inferior design choices.

  41. vince charles

    36. Das Boese Said:
    May 12th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    “I’m sorry to say it, but this is not at all a credible effort to improve access to space… it’s a transparent attempt to keep the Constellation pork flowing by different means, to bridge the gap until SLS (aka the Rocket To Nowhere) supposedly becomes operational.

    I’ll add that nearly all the press releases and public announcements about Liberty have come solely from ATK, while there has been conspicuous silence on the part of their European “partners.””

    Astrium is doing just fine selling Ariane 5s; any additional units are just gravy. Since the relevant people are mulling “Ariane 6,” Astrium may be in a weird position or two right now on hardware sales, or at least disclosure of such.

    And if you think asteroids are “Nowhere,” some billionaires as well as NASA’s HEO office will keep right on working, thank you very much. There are legitimate complaints to be had about the SLS, but a “slur” nickname ain’t one of ‘em.

    “In any case one has to ask themselves why NASA would spend any money on a reboot of the failed Ares I concept with a foreign upper stage, instead of…”

    Meh. If ATK finds a way to actually make it work, then it works. That’s the point of competitive technologies: the winning competitor may not look like you expect at the outset, and that should be OK. The Model T was no looker, nor much of a performer, even by the standards of that time.

    Oh, and it gets weirder: this rocket, even if it never flies once, still has value as a “grey knight.” Yeah, life is funny… not like you’d expect.

  42. js

    A lot of opinions here without any data. The 5 segment ATK booster deliver 3.3 million lbs of thrust. Nothing liquid comes close. (Saturn V F-1 Engines were 1.5 million, 5 each, but nothing from any of the competitors come close to the Saturn V) Space X uses RP1 and O. RP1 and Liquid O are pretty basic. The Ariane 5 is Liquid H and O which has a higher Initial Impulse than RP1/O and the Ariane 5 was designed to be human rated.

    None of the competitors will be able to compete with Liberties payload capability. As far as the LAS, that can be done and don’t forget the Ariane 5 is between the SLB and the crew module. NASA SSL will use 2 ATK Solid Boosters and have confidence in the sytem.

    As far as the old dinosaurs, USA, United Space Alliance has a pretty good track record..100%.
    So the old dinosaurs I guess can be called old because there has not been any new. It will come down to cost and payload. All the so called new competitors are using very old technology and RP1 as fuel. The Atlas V uses an RD180 Russian designed engine… Only the Delta IV use LO and LH engines in the main stage.

    Judge by the data, not wild opinions,

  43. “Will ATK beat everyone into space?”

    Apparently, no:

    ATK ‘moving on’ after Liberty commercial proposal loss.
    http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1209/07liberty/

    The ESA if they wanted their own manned space flight system could get it quickly by using the Ariane 5 core stage alone with the addition of a second Vulcain engine, capable of carrying a Dragon-sized capsule to orbit.
    Even the Dragon is larger than it needs to be just to LEO. If you made a capsule half its size to carry just three passengers, then by cutting the size of the Ariane 5 core to half-size you could loft the half-size capsule to orbit on just a single Vulcain engine.

    Bob Clark

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