NASA announcements, two days in a row, indicate America may be back on track in the human exploration of space. Both are good news for ATK, which builds its solid-fuel rocket motors in Utah. But don’t run to the dollar store for party hats and confetti just yet.
Tuesday’s announcement was that NASA will work with ATK to study a proposed new rocket called Liberty that would service the International Space Station. That was overshadowed Wednesday by the release of NASA’s choice of the design for the Space Launch System, a gigantic new rocket to travel to the moon and beyond, at least initially using ATK five-segment boosters.
[NASA concept of the proposed Space Launch System on the launchpad, ATK boosters at the sides]
Other exciting news is that the Senate may have saved the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA said Thursday that the Kepler space telescope has discovered the first extrasolar planet to orbit two stars. Although this Kepler planet is not thought capable of hosting life, its importance is that NASA believes most stars in our galaxy are double and that this expands the range of places where life may exist.
Caveats about the rocket announcements are:
*** NASA is not committed to the Liberty, but will help analyze the program, which would incorporate a five-segment ATK booster as first stage and a liquid-fueled French rocket, the Ariane 5, for the upper stage. Liberty will have to compete with other private industry proposals for a contract to ferry astronauts and and supplies to the International Space Station.
*** The Space Launch System — which envisions a huge liquid-fueled engine with two ATK five-segment boosters attached, for the initial launches — is expensive. How expensive? At least $18 billion, but probably more. An independent analysis found that NASA’s cost estimates for the SLS are suitable for the next three to five budget years but not particularly reliable beyond then. Also, after the initial launches, what sort of boosters will be used will be decided by competition.
SPACE LAUNCH SYSTEM
More than a year after the Obama administration canceled the proposed Constellation system of launch vehicles, NASA finally chose a candidate for the heavy-lift vehicle to get astronauts into the vicinity of the moon and beyond. The Space Launch System uses some of the Constellation hardware. It would carry a new large crew capsule, called Orion, “as well as important cargo, equipment and space experiments to Earth’s orbit and destinations beyond,” according to a NASA news release.
The $18 billion estimate comes from a comment by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, chairman of the Senate’s Science and Space Subcommittee, who apparently relied on NASA figures. In its release Wednesday the space agency did not provide cost estimates, possibly because of criticism by an independent assessment that it had commissioned.
The assessment was carried out by the firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., headquartered in McLain, VA. In a report dated Aug.19, the firm expresses confidence in NASA’s cost estimates for the next three to five budget years. But it adds, “Beyond this horizon, the inclusion of large expected cost savings in the estimates, the beginning of development activities, and the potential for significant risk events decreases the ICA [Independent Cost Assessment] Team’s confidence in the estimates.”
The report summary concludes, “Due to unjustified, sometimes substantial, assumed future cost savings; the ICA Team views each Program’s estimate as optimistic.” The three programs are the SLS, the Orion capsule and ground-based operations.
NASA’s release says the SLS “will serve as a backup for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space System.”
It quotes Charles Bolden, agency administrator, “This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world.
“President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”
The first version of the SLS rocket will be able to lift 77 tons, which could be upgraded to 134 tons. NASA targets the end of 2017 for the first flight.
In response to a request from Nightly News for a comment, ATK provided this statement, datelined Arlington, Va., Sept. 14:
“ATK applauds NASA’s decision to move forward with a Space Launch System for human deep space exploration. We are proud that NASA will utilize ATK’s five-segment solid rocket motors as the baseline design for the initial flights. ATK’s five-segment boosters provide unmatched capability and we will deliver this performance within the current budget. We are confident in the design and look forward to the early test flights to demonstrate our capability. We are also well positioned to compete for the final design because of our proven performance and a thrust-to-weight ratio of our solid rocket motors which are ideally suited for first stage propulsion.”
In a press conference held at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Tuesday, NASA and ATK said they had signed an agreement to analyze ATK’s proposed Liberty launch vehicle, which could ferry supplies and astronauts to the Space Station, replacing the Russian spaceships — one of which, an unmanned Progress rocket, crashed on Aug. 24.
ATK has partnered with the European company Astrium in the project; the company is part of the EADS group. ATK would provide the first stage, a five-segment booster more powerful than one of the boosters that helped launch the Space Shuttle, while Astrium would provide the second stage, derived from the Ariane 5 rocket’s basic motor. Liberty is expected to loft a compartment with up to seven crew members.
The study is to continue at least six months.
ATK and EADS North America have been in discussion for almost a year about adapting the Ariane 5 core stage with the ATK motor, said John Schumacher, vice president for space programs, EADS North America.
“We believe Liberty offers the safest, most reliable means to put our crew on orbit,” said Kent Rominger, ATK vice president and program manager for Liberty. Even though the two vehicles weren’t originally designed for each other, both have proven track records and are safety-rated to carry crews, he said.
“The real beauty of it is, it’s extremely simple.… One system for first stage, one system for second stage, and you’re on orbit.” Limiting the rocket to two stages reduces the likelihood something will go wrong, he said, noting that it was the Progress’ third stage that failed.
ATK is responsible for its own costs in the study. Ed Mango, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, explained the space agency will use taxpayer dollars to cover its part of the study, as the knowledge gained will be valuable for space science. NASA has entered into another such agreement with a different launch-vehicle provider, he said.
“NASA will be bringing to the table a number of skilled capabilities,” he added. These include “things like structure analysis, thermal analysis, vibration analysis, the hardcore engineering capabilities you need.”
Asked by Nightly News what additional information the proponents need to learn about the two rockets, Rominger said, “Although both stages have a lot of flight time and experience … it has not flown as a system. So integrating a system is a lot easier said than done.”
Planners need know how the rockets will interact when they are flown together.
They must check control features, and make sure “that we fully appreciate the loads, stresses and environments that this vehicle goes through,” he said. Also, the team must know “as we’re assembling it … that the quality is there, that in fact it is going together as designed and meets all requirements, the safety requirements.
“So although it is a very mature system, there is still a lot to learn,” Rominger said.
Mango said NASA’s main team will be 12 to 24 experts working full-time, who can call in another 50 experts on a part-time basis. ATK will provide 35 to 40, Rominger said.
Liberty is planned with a lift capacity of 44,000 pounds to low-earth orbit, where the International Space Station resides. Rominger said this is more than can be orbited by any of the other potential commercial providers of crewed vehicles.
With some adjustments, it could go beyond that distance, he said.
Mango said NASA hopes an American-led vehicle can go into space at least twice a year by the middle of this decade. “We need to figure out how to get to ISS with an American-led system as soon as we can.”