Image: Liberty on Mobile Launcher
ATK
The Liberty launch vehicle, seen in this artist's conception, is designed to use existing facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, including the Mobile Launcher that was built for the now-canceled Ares 1 rocket.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/18/2012 2:11:04 PM ET 2012-07-18T18:11:04
Commentary

In a five-part series, NBC News' Jay Barbree lays out a vision of spaceflight in the 20-teens for the 2012 presidential candidates.

If astronauts are launched from American soil once again during the next presidential term, they'll almost certainly be riding a rocket called Liberty, Atlas or Falcon.

Those are the rockets being offered as the main contenders in a new commercial space race to carry NASA's spacefliers to the International Space Station. So which one is the most ready to go?

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule have taken up most of the spotlight to date, thanks to May's successful cargo-carrying mission to the International Space Station. But this old curmudgeon sees the situation differently, as do some other longtime observers of the space program.

The way it looks from here, Liberty is the best bet, with United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 a close second, and SpaceX third.

Why?

Because Liberty draws upon three decades of tested technology:  The rocket's first stage is a space shuttle solid rocket booster with five segments instead of four. The booster has had 221 successful launches in a row — the most ever.  A version of Liberty was tested under the name Ares 1-X in 2009.  Everything the launch system needs remains standing.  Even the 600 high-tech workers whose jobs were outsourced to Russia since last year's retirement of the shuttle fleet are still in the neighborhood.

The launch vehicle, incorporating the solid-fuel first stage and an upper stage based on the tried-and-true Ariane 5 rocket, would be assembled here at Kennedy Space Center's massive Vehicle Assembly Building.  Its service tower is here, too, paid for but never used.  There's a crawler-transporter ready to carry it, a launch control center ready to monitor the countdown — and the same seaside launch pad used to launch Liberty's first version, the Ares 1-X.

Liberty is designed to lift 44,500 pounds, the most weight carried by any of America's single rockets.  It would be outfitted with the Max Launch Abort System, an advanced crew-escape system that was built and tested by NASA itself.  Liberty's lightweight composite spacecraft is also a built-and-tested NASA product — and the good news is that its working parts and systems would be put together by Lockheed Martin, the same people building NASA's Orion deep-space ship.

Despite all these pluses, the commercial Liberty project hasn’t received a single dollar from NASA.  Its team includes ATK, Astrium, Lockheed Martin, and 12 other subcontractors that fly history’s safest space hardware, sustaining thousands of jobs across 10 states. If Liberty is eventually selected to fly America’s goods, the team plans about 600 rehires from the space shuttle launch team.

Liberty could carry to seven astronauts into Earth orbit, not only aboard its own lightweight taxi, but aboard virtually all commercial spacecraft being offered, including the big one itself, the Orion.

The two other favorites
Simply put, the Liberty launch system can do more than Russia's Soyuz for less money. The same can be said, of course, for the two other entrants in the rocket race, United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 and SpaceX's Falcon 9.

Image: Boeing CST-100 and Atlas 5
Boeing
An artist's conception shows Boeing's CST-100 crew-carrying spaceship atop an Atlas 5 rocket on a launch pad. Such a craft could fly to the International Space Station as early as 2015.

The Atlas 5 has been launched successfully 31 times in a row from its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch pad, just south of the Kennedy Space Center.  The pad is in direct view of NASA's launch control center.  It can carry Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft, or Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, or even Blue Origin's Orbital Space Vehicle — all of which have been receiving development funds from NASA.

If NASA is smart enough to fly both Liberty and Atlas, American astronauts should never be without a rocket again. The two rockets could serve as backups for each other. If not, NASA's $6.6 billion Kennedy Space Center could be without a launch for five years or more. Its remaining 8,500 employees will have little to do except watch the grass grow.  

How about SpaceX?

The company's cargo flight in May was a great success, and in time it could be just as successful launching astronauts into orbit. SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk, has said the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule could put astronauts into orbit in three years. That's possible — but based on past delays in SpaceX's launch schedule, that doesn't seem likely to me.

SpaceX is going to have to execute a $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly 12 unmanned cargo flights to and from the space station over the next four years. It has other contracts to fulfill as well. In order to get the cargo-carrying Dragon cleared for carrying humans, the company will have to prove out upgrades in the Falcon's engines, develop a launch escape system, enhance environmental controls and install seats as well as control panels for astronauts.

The launch escape system is SpaceX's longest lead item. The company has already tested the SuperDraco engines that will be used by the escape system, but its launch facilities will have to be "human-rated," and then all the hardware and systems will have to pass NASA's safety muster. It's a Herculean effort that calls for 20 flights before launching humans.

SpaceX's impressive Dragon flight in May confounded many of the doubters, but experience is experience: SpaceX has launched rockets from its Cape Canaveral complex only three times, while the companies behind the Liberty and Atlas rockets have had dozens of successful liftoffs.

Image: Falcon launch
Michael R. Brown  /  Reuters
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 22, sending an unmanned Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. SpaceX is working on a crew-capable version of the Dragon.

NASA team faces tough choices
The United States needs its own rocket and spacecraft, and the thousands of high-tech workers who lost their jobs when the space effort was outsourced to Russia need work. NASA has suffered serious setbacks, but I have to say it right here: In spite of it all, no one has done a better job managing the space agency than its current administrator and his deputy.

It’s been an unfair road for NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who started out as a young black man from the segregated South.  Despite the odds, he made it through the halls of the U.S. Naval Academy, then served as a fighter pilot, a test pilot and a four-time space shuttle astronaut and commander. On top of all that, he's a retired two-star Marine Corps general. But even more important, he's a gentle man, warm and approachable with good humor and good will — an all-around affable person.

By his side is another sturdy hand — another all-around pleasant person, his deputy, Lori Garver.  She cut her teeth in the space business as an intern in John Glenn's presidential campaign, and she's been on the rise ever since. 

I've witnessed every day of NASA’s history.  I sit here looking across launch pads with clear memories of the first flights by Alan Shepard and John Glenn. I remember standing there and shouting into a microphone when each Apollo flights left for the moon, and manning the microphone for three decades more as hundreds of astronauts were launched on 135 space shuttle missions.

I doubt seriously if anyone is seeking the advice of this old curmudgeon. But for what it's worth, I’m going to give it. Charlie and Lori, the companies involved in this commercial space race are taking no prisoners. The competition is fierce. This is the time you must make your best judgment for your country. Choose the most experienced partners. Choose the least costly path. Support the Liberty team, as well as the team behind Boeing's CST-100 and ULA's Atlas 5, as well as SpaceX. America’s space family needs work. They need to get their jobs back from Russia, and America’s astronauts need the feel of their own launch pads under them.

Safety first
All of the teams in the race are devoted to flying astronauts safely. There's no sign that anything about any of the spacecraft being developed for this space race is even potentially unsafe. But over the long run, experience is experience.

I remember meeting with astronaut Gus Grissom a few days before the Apollo 1 launch-pad fire in 1967. NASA had recently made a switch from McDonnell Aircraft, the prime contractor for Project Mercury and Gemini, to a new contractor named North American Aviation. Grissom begged me to reason with Apollo management. "Nothing really works on that spacecraft, Jay," he said. "We can’t even talk to the blockhouse."

After that talk, Apollo launch manager Rocco Petrone reassured me all was well. But even today, 45 years later, it still haunts me that I should have done more. I should have tried harder to save the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

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A similar lack of experience, mixed with overconfidence, played a role in the near-catastrophe of Apollo 13 in 1970, the loss of the shuttle Challenger in 1986, and the failure to see a hole in Columbia's wing in 2003.

Charlie and Lori, as you move ahead with plans for spaceflight in the 20-teens, turn to the experienced space workers who have suffered so much in the past year. Give America proven flight hardware. Don't gamble with this country's space effort.

Caution is the better part of spaceflight.

'Spaceflight in the 20-teens':

Cape Canaveral correspondent Jay Barbree is in his 55th year with NBC News. Barbree wrote the New York Times best-seller "Moon Shot" with Alan Shepard, and was a finalist to be the first journalist in space. His space team received an Emmy for broadcasting the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.  Barbree broke the news about the cause of the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident on NBC Nightly News and is a recipient of NASA’s highest medal for public service. An updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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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