Thursday, May 17, 2012

Going Back to Space: ATK 's Liberty rocket

ATK's Liberty rocket and capsule program.

With the end of the shuttle and the Space Transportation System (STS), it seemed to some outsiders that ATK would no longer have a market for those large 4-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB's) that propelled the shuttle orbiters into space. Also not boding well for the company was the cancellation of the Constellation program and the Ares rocket system after only one test of the Ares 1-X. But you can't keep a good team down. ATK has bounced back as a major competitor in the CCD race to space.

Comparing the commercial rockets under development or already available. "A" is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, still under development. "B" is the Liberty rocket.

ATK has joined forces with key companies to put together the Liberty commercial crew transportation system. With ATK providing a 5-segment SRB first stage, the makers of the Arianne rocket, Astrium, providing the liquid-fueled second stage, and now Lockheed Martin providing support for ATK's Liberty capsule, all the components are together.

Computer illustration of Liberty on crawler/tower moving to the pad. The Liberty is almost as tall as a Saturn rocket, but a great deal less expensive!

Because much of the hardware of the rocket is already tested and flown, it remains to ATK to assemble the package and flight test it and attain a human-rated approval. The toughest part of the process will be quickly developing a crew capsule. And ATK has that in hand, as well. Between 2007 and 2010, ATK had built a composite-structure capsule for a NASA program to reduce risk in transporting humans to space. Now ATK will modify the capsule to fully comply with safety and engineering requirements.

Component-ready Liberty. SRB's from the shuttle, liquid-fuel stage from the Arianne. Capsule by ATK with Lockheed support.

ATK also has the most ambitious schedule of the companies racing to provide commercial crew service. According to their plans, the first unmanned mission will launch in 2014, with the first crewed spaceflight in 2015. This would place ATK a year ahead of SpaceX Dragonrider, and several years ahead of NASA's SLS/Orion system.

5-segment SRB first stage testing in Utah.

ATK is finishing testing of the SRB first stage in the Utah test facility. They are also working on the launch abort system that could save the crew capsule in an emergency on the pad or during launch. As you can see from the picture below, progress is moving at a rapid pace on the Liberty capsule.

Engineers preparing the composite-structure spacecraft.

Barring any unforeseen difficulties in testing, my money would be on ATK to be fairly close to its schedule projections. The project is led by former astronaut Kent Rominger and the ATK team is experienced in building space technology systems. Keep an eye out for more news from ATK as their systems get ready for launch.

All images for this blog post are credited to ATK.

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