Great News for Spaceflight and Utah?

Fabulous news may be coming soon for the U.S. space program and Utah’s aerospace industry, assuming a report on an Internet site specializing in spaceflight coverage is correct.

Nightly News is loath to pick up information from other news sites, but this seems so important and the sources quoted are so far beyond my reach, that no alternative is available.

On June 16 the site NASASpaceFlight.com reported that NASA officials are preparing to announce the configuration of a new heavy lift space vehicle, probably to coincide with the last Space Shuttle launch. That flight of the shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to begin on July 8.
The exciting aspect of NASASpaceFlight.com’s report is its claim that NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. has agreed to a configuration of the vehicle “which is heavily derived from the retiring space shuttle.”

[Is America headed back to the moon, after all? View of our only natural satellite by Joe Bauman]

As nobody interested in space exploration can forget, President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal tried to kill the Constellation space flight system, which would have used big boosters built by ATK at its Promontory plant in Box Elder County. Constellation was well on its way as a replacement of the shuttle fleet.

Constellation’s crew launch vehicle, dubbed Ares I, would have used a combination of a single ATK five-segment solid rocket booster engine topped by a liquid-fueled stage. Ares I was to have transported astronauts to space.

[A September 2009 static test of the Ares I first stage, conducted at ATK’s Promontory, Box Elder County, facility. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Ares V, a heavy launch vehicle, would have carried payloads needed by the astronauts; it would have used both liquid-fuel engines and a pair of supersize ATK solid rocket boosters. Those boosters would have five and a half motor segments each, compared with four apiece for the shuttle. When then-President George W. Bush announced the Constellation program in 2005, he called for the new design to return Americans to the moon and to explore beyond, notably Mars. Ares is the Greek name for Mars.

[Models of Ares I and Ares V rockets, major parts of the scuttled Constellation program. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Instead of continuing to fund Constellation, which had already cost $9 billion, according to the BBC, Obama’s budget called for funding the private sector with $14 billion to develop launch capability over the next five years. But bipartisan resistance flared against Obama’s plan, with political leaders battling behind the scenes to salvage the crewed space program.

It seems clear to Nightly News and many spaceflight experts that private business alone lacks the resources to project humans to stations on the moon or to Mars. If funded by massive federal outlays, such enterprises would simply use tax money to reinvent the rocket.

NASASpaceFlight.com, which claims 320,000 hits per month, reports that the Senate Authorization Act “changed NASA’s course and put its weight behind a Space Launch System (SLS) which utilized both Constellation (Ares) and Shuttle hardware.”
Citing a memo, NASASpaceFlight.com reports the new plan would include “4 or 5 segment solid boosters for initial flights.” It adds that the five-segment motor is more likely and explains that the “initial” comment means that NASA leadership hasn’t yet decided if a more robust vehicle — to be tested after initial flights — would have solid or liquid boosters.
The report says ATK officials have been quick to inform NASA leaders it can provide support “not just with the initial SLS [Space Launch System] but also into the future,” in developing a rocket that can lift a payload of 130 metric tons into orbit. It quotes “source information” to say ATK proposed a contract with NASA for 10 boosters to be available between next year and 2015. Before its boosters are depleted by 2020, the report says, again quoting sources, ATK has enough material to support up to 11 SLS launches.

What this could mean to America’s future in space is that the federal government is coming to its senses and not abandoning the lead in crewed spaceflight, after all. What it could mean to Utah and ATK is that the company — which was forced to lay off many hundreds of employees in this state with the end of the shuttle program — may be back in the big booster business.

To read the entire report, browse to the NASASpaceFlight.com site, HERE.

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