Space veterans offer NASA their Liberty launch system

Image: Composite crew vehicle
<div>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.</div>ATK file

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.

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.

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 published by Open Road Integrated Media and available from , , ,   and .