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.