Image: Composite crew vehicle
ATK file
Engineers work on a composite crew module that ATK built in 2009 for NASA's consideration. The company is now proposing the development of a spacecraft made from composite materials to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/9/2012 10:41:39 PM ET 2012-05-10T02:41:39
Commentary

At a time when NASA’s human-spaceflight budget is frozen and likely facing cutbacks, the company that built the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters says it has developed a complete astronaut transportation system using America’s existing launch facilities.

If NASA lends its support to the system, known as Liberty, the project could end America’s dependence on the Russians to fly its astronauts in as little as three years.

Virginia-based Alliant Techsystems, also known as ATK, says Liberty would be a complete commercial crew transportation system, including the spacecraft as well as ground and mission operations. All of its elements would meet NASA’s requirements for carrying humans, ATK says.

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The Liberty rocket would build on the work that ATK did on the Ares 1-X, a launch vehicle that was being developed for NASA and went through a suborbital test launch in 2009. The Ares 1-X project was canceled a year after that launch, due to NASA’s shift to commercial options for resupplying the International Space Station, but Liberty would take advantage of some of the same elements.

The Liberty rocket’s first stage is a five-segment version of the solid boosters that lifted NASA’s space shuttles safely into space 110 times following the Challenger accident.  Its second stage is from France’s successful commercial rocket, the Ariane 5.

Liberty’s lightweight composite spacecraft is from the future: Little-noticed engineering experiments at NASA’s Langley Research Center suggest that the space agency could adjust to tight-money times by using weight-saving composite spacecraft rather than the traditional aluminum structures. ATK built such a test spacecraft for NASA, and has struck a deal with Lockheed Martin to outfit the craft with its spaceflight systems.

ATK signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA last September, which opened the way for the company to work with the space agency to refine the design. Now ATK says it’s ready to proceed with Liberty, using existing facilities. The company and its partners plan to seek NASA funding in an upcoming competition that will result in the selection of one or two integrated space transportation systems for further development.

Several other companies are expected to join in the bidding for NASA’s commercial crew launches. Boeing, for instance, has a group of aerospace engineers with mountains of experience building its CST-100 crew spacecraft.  The CST-100 is to be launched by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. Two other companies – Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corp. – are working on their own spaceships that could be launched on an Atlas 5.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is offering its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft for NASA’s use as a crew transport. SpaceX is currently preparing to send a different version of the Dragon on a Falcon 9 on what could be its first unmanned cargo run to the space station, with launch set for as early as May 19.

SpaceX and United Launch Alliance use a type of fuel combination – liquid oxygen plus kerosene –  which is different from the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen system that NASA’s shuttle orbiters used at Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX and ULA currently operate from their own launch facilities down the road from Kennedy Space Center, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Image: Liberty
ATK / Liberty Space
An artist's conception shows the Liberty rocket rising toward orbit.

For NASA to launch the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5 from its pads, the space agency and commercial companies would have to make costly modifications to the fuel facilities at Kennedy Space Center. This would require installing new fuel storage and management systems, akin to the systems that NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia have been putting into place to handle Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares launch vehicle.  Those efforts have encountered cost overruns and schedule delays because the task of building a new launch site is proving to be more difficult than expected.

SpaceX and United Launch Alliance should have the freedom to develop their promising systems at their own facilities, while Liberty launches from the same pads that sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon; Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand to meet the Russians in orbit; and Charles Bolden, Hoot Gibson, Charlie Precourt, Bob Cabana Sally Ride, Eileen Collins, Rick Hauck and Bob Crippin to add to the space shuttle’s legacy.

Liberty’s mission is clear: Save taxpayer bucks and return Americans to their own spaceship for less cost per seat than it’s costing for astronauts to thumb a ride on Russia’s Soyuz.

Quick facts about the Liberty launch system:

  • Capable of sending seven crew members and cargo to International Space Station.
  • Composite crew module would land over water, and would be reusable for 10 flights.
  • Crew module would be equipped with the Max Launch Abort System that was developed at NASA's Langley Research Center and tested at Wallops Flight Facility.
  • Test flights to begin in 2014, first crewed flight in 2015, available for NASA by 2016.
  • Liberty could be used for space tourist flights as well as flights to private-sector space stations. Price per seat projected to be lower than the $60 million that the Russians are charging NASA.
  • Development would proceed even if NASA provides no support, but without NASA funding, there's "no way I can meet a schedule" for the first crewed flight in 2015, Liberty program manager Kent Rominger says.

Cape Canaveral correspondent Jay Barbree is in his 54th year with NBC News. Barbree is a former finalist to be the first American journalist in space and the only reporter to cover all 166 flights by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. He has won NASA’s highest medal for public service and the National Space Club’s 2009 Press Award. Barbree also has written several books about the space effort, including an updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media and available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books.

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Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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