Rocket maker enters spaceflight race
ATK joined a European company called Astrium to create a launch vehicle called Liberty, illustrated above.
May 9th, 2012
07:45 PM ET

Rocket maker enters spaceflight race

If this were a horse race - and in many ways it is - you would say the field just got a little more crowded.

ATK, the company that built the space shuttle solid rocket boosters, has announced it is jumping into the competition to build a spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s called the Liberty system.

Kent Rominger, a former NASA astronaut who now heads ATK’s Liberty program, said, “It’s more capable than any other option out there.”

Fourteen months ago, ATK announced it had partnered with the European aerospace company Astrium to build the Liberty rocket, which could carry more than 44,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. But at that point there was no mention of building a crew module. Now, ATK and Astrium are joined by Lockheed Martin to build a complete system from launcher to spacecraft.

Rominger said it became clear pretty quickly that that was the way to go. “By us having control over the entire stack,” he said, “we can best control our own destiny.”

ATK said the Liberty system should be ready for a test flight by 2014 and a crewed flight the next year. The spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven people to the station.

Now, the question for ATK and several other commercial companies is: Which design does NASA choose?

Sierra Nevada Corp. is building a winged spacecraft, kind of a mini-space shuttle, called Dream Chaser. Boeing has the CST 100. SpaceX has the Dragon, and Blue Origin has the New Shepard. All are capsule shaped spacecraft.

By the end of the summer NASA is expected to announce which company or companies will be awarded $300 million to $500 million contracts toward development of crew transportation systems.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has maintained he wants at least two in case one should drop out along the way. But some members of Congress say there may not be enough money to do that. Choosing only one would, sources close to the process say, put even more pressure on NASA to make the right choice.

Rominger said, “To me, if you could only choose one person out there, I think we make sense. Our system is designed for humans.”

It’s unclear whether any one company has a leg up. SpaceX has flown a capsule successfully around the Earth. No other commercial company has done that. SpaceX is poised to attempt to rendezvous and berth its unmanned Dragon capsule at the International Space Station. After several delays, the launch is now set for the predawn hours on May 19 from Cape Canaveral.

In a recent interview, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said, “I’m worried that if the upcoming flight is not successful, there’s some within Congress who will use that to claim that commercial spaceflight should not be funded and that it’s a mistake.”

Musk said he hopes that opinion would not prevail. With the space shuttle retired, the Russian space program and commercial companies are the only options for ferrying astronauts and cargo to the space station.

Musk said if his company is awarded the NASA crew contract, he could fly astronauts to the station by 2016 at a cost of $20 million per seat.  Russia charges NASA about $60 million per rider.

Rominger won’t commit to how much a ride would cost on Liberty or whether he can beat the SpaceX estimate. “Very, very competitive, significantly less than what the Russians are doing,” he said.

With NASA’s decision less than four months away, these companies are going to be scrambling and pressing to convince the space agency and Congress that theirs is the best horse in the race.

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Filed under: In Space • News • Politics and Policy
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Dupper

    Bet hey won't buy fake parts from China now.

    May 10, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  2. zoosphere

    Just a personal opinion, it sounds getting more expensive. Rockets and traveling in the space are more gorgeously equipped.

    May 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  3. wrm

    Must be some interesting ITAR issues to sort out.

    May 10, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  4. ww

    You really want to see a space race go on, is announce that moon weed is 100x more potent than stuff grown on earth.

    May 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  5. Tex71

    Sooner or later, NASA's secret reverse-engineered alien spaceship technology will leak out and be used by private enterprise! The government has had this stuff for decades – as proof I cite former Sen. Larry Craig's intercepted phone conversation with a junior staffer in which he claims "...my probe will arrive at Uranus in about five minutes." There are cover-ups going on!

    May 10, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  6. Oscar Pitchfork

    Quit yappin' and do the research AND the math: there isn't anything in space that you can't find on Earth cheaper. NOTHING.

    May 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • RenegadeFL

      Romulan Ale?

      May 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • AgentJ

      Helium 3?
      Don't be hatin. If its such a terrible idea, explain the company Planetary Resources, please.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • CE

      Except when things run out on earth.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
      • ww

        Or things get really expensive on earth because supply and demand.
        Space is our next and unlimited option.

        May 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Get real

      So I take it you don't understand the concept of perfect crystals or perfect metals that can be made in zero gravity that are thousands of time better than anything that can be made in earths gravity field? Not to mention the cost of moving anything into orbit, the sense is to use the materials out there to contruct things out there. Idiot.

      May 10, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
      • ww

        This is true.
        Just have to make the first crucial first steps. Once we get the people and machinery to the location. Things will become easy.

        May 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Splain it to em

      Yes that is true, up to a point. If we are going to go into space at all, then we have to make the initial investment. While true that most things made on earth are vastly cheaper you still have to move them into orbit, and that's where the real cost lays. It's like the concept of building a bridge across a river. Why build a bridge when you have boats that can move things across the river a little at a time? It's people like you that will be stuck in little boats the rest of your life, while people like me will be moving massive amounts of material and earning massive amounts of money because I took the time and effort to build a bridge.

      May 10, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
      • WhatWhatWhat?

        You splained it quite nice there, thanks.

        May 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Rbt Heinlein

      alien women

      May 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Dupper

      Extreamly cold beer

      May 10, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  7. UnFred

    Just wait till some OPEC financially backed company launches the first camel into space to drop underwear bombs on us! They need to be stopped now!!!

    May 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Snacklefish

      I like turtles!

      May 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Informed

      and starfish

      May 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  8. CargoCult

    I hope the Dream Chaser is the winner. It is by far the most flexible vehicle since it can land anywhere with a runway. All the other vehicles use 'splash-down' style returns. I dont know about you, but I would prefer to come back to a smooth, dry landing instead of an impact somewhere at sea.

    May 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Farscape

      Considering there is a lot more ocean than there is runway..your logic is a bit backward.

      P.s. Comfort takes a back seat to practicality when it comes to space flight.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
      • Bill

        Thank you for your 50 year old opinion. You probably think the computer is a fad.

        May 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
      • ww

        Heh. Not really. Sure there is more ocean than land. But you are not thinking of overall costs. If you can build a reusable spacecraft, and have a landing strip for it, your costs will be less than having to buy 2 or 3 large enough ships with cranes and other equipment to fish your capsules out of the water, plus you will need helicopters, speedboats, and hundreds of crew. And with the rising costs of fuel, these little retrieval missions will cost you tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel costs alone.

        May 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  9. Wastrel

    Private enterprise will conquer space. The government is afraid that if, for instance, there is a colony on the moon, then it will want to be an independent country. The government will not support any endeavor that it cannot control. Private enterprise has no such fears.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • akd4dan

      And yet the government is subsidizing these private enterpirse efforts. When will folks recognize that the government in a democracy is us.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
      • Wastrel

        That is quite true, because our government can never adopt a consistent policy where money is involved. The senators and representatives from one state or another want government money to goto their districts - a short-term goal that conflicts in the long run with the stated government policy of robot exploration and no moon colony.

        May 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
      • AgentJ

        The money that SpaceX has received is just a drop in the bucket compared to what they have spent themselves on developing their vehicles:

        "But here’s the big one: Money. SpaceX has received $381 million from NASA to develop the capability — its rocket and spacecraft — to fly cargo to the space station. All told the company has spent about $1 billion, said its CEO, Elon Musk.

        And how much would NASA have spent developing a rocket and spacecraft to do the same thing?

        According to Alan Lindenmoyer, commercial crew and cargo manager for NASA, a recent federal analysis estimated that using traditional NASA procurement to spacecraft design and construction, developing a similar capacity would have cost four to 10 times as much.

        May 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
      • AgentJ

        Forgot to give a source, that quote was from Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle, BTW.

        May 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
      • JJC

        AgentJ – So by your definition, the government has financed about 40%. And you consider 40% a drop in the bucket?

        May 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  10. Squeezebox

    Forget NASA, the real market's going to be space miners! They're already launching exploratory robots now.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  11. Aardie

    We will find out soon enough which one is VHS and which ones are Betamax.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Eric J Krejci

    How many orbital service providers should there be ? Well how many motor vehicle providers are enough ? The point being, we should have as many as possible. Each will find its own niche to excel at. Yes the market is small now, but the "killer app" of space travel has yet to really be discovered. When it is the market will grow very quickly.

    May 9, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Fellows

      yea, but there's still only one customer. I imagin all but the largest companies will wither away and die on the vine. NASA isn't going to pay for 5 different spaceships that do the same thing. In other words, "commercial" space flight is no different than what we did before with Commercial companies.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
      • Farscape

        One customer?
        Seriously?
        Um.. beyond the half dozen countries actively involved you don’t think other countries that otherwise could not afford the R&D wouldn’t be interested? Then there is the private market.. everything from companies putting satellites into space to your private citizen that wants to ‘see space’. If I’m not mistaken they’ve already started selling tickets and they are sold out!

        May 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
      • SB

        I don't understand how anyone living in 2012 could possibly think there's only "one customer". Do you think all the commercial satellites you use every day were WISHED into orbit?

        May 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm |

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