Alliant Techsystems surprises with a manned rocket | Ars Technica

Commercial rocket and crew capsule will be made of pieces from other programs.

 by Dave Klingler – May 9 2012, 11:24pm EDT

While it’s widely known that Utah-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) has been working on a new rocket, they managed to keep their spacecraft a secret until today. With their entry, there now are five companies competing to carry crew to the International Space Program: SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and ATK.

The new system, called Liberty, was announced at an ATK press conference a short time ago. It uses a solid first stage from the Space Launch System, an Astrium liquid first stage from Ariane 5 as its second stage, and a brand-new composite crew capsule with a pusher-type Max Launch Abort System (MLAS) shrouding the capsule. ATK says they will attempt a first launch sometime in 2014.


The ATK first stage is quite familiar: it’s the five-segment Solid Rocket Booster from the Space Launch System (SLS). This was originally created from scratch for Constellation’s Ares 1 rocket after using the Shuttle’s SRB’s turned out not to be technically feasible. It’s had three successful ground firings.

One advantage of a solid rocket motor is that they’re relatively cheap to manufacture. They can be tricky to use, though, and rating them for human launches requires some way to absorb the shock accelerations the motors experience as they burn. Unmitigated, the 5-6G shaking can be quite dangerous to human beings. NASA famously installed giant shock absorbers on top and bottom the Ares I.

ATK claims to have largely solved that problem. They didn’t talk about the other disadvantage of a solid rocket motor, which is that they are devilishly difficult to turn off once started. The Ares/SLS rocket motors do not have that capability.

Astrium’s Ariane 5 first stage will function as a second stage for the Liberty rocket. Astrium’s John Schumacher pointed out that the liquid oxygen/hydrogen Vulcain 2-powered stage has had 47 successful launches and is considered to be quite reliable. The stage will need to be considerably strengthened to ride atop the solid booster, and the Vulcain engine will need to be modified for air start. That’s not generally an easy task, but according to Schumacher, Astrium has been working on it for quite some time. Although the stage is manufactured in Europe, eventually it will be made in the United States to cut costs.

Crew module

During the Constellation program the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) experimented with a composite crew module (CCM) The project encompassed nine separate NASA centers, plus Alcore, Alliant Techsystems, Bally Ribbon Mills, Collier Corporation, Genesis Engineering, Janicki Industries, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. As of 2009, the CCM didn’t appear to offer any weight or cost advantages, so it didn’t attract a huge amount of attention.

Evidently ATK has licensed the design from NASA and has continued to develop it. ATK says the capsule will be good for ten launches with water landings.

The service module, which actually carries the crew to the International Space Station (or other destinations), is basically the 30,000-pound spacecraft that has been developed by Lockheed-Martin for the Orion space capsule. It won’t be tested by LockMart until 2014, which also raises the question of which company will test it first. But it’s a perfect fit for the Composite Crew Capsule, which was developed to match Orion’s dimensions.

The Max Launch Abort System, or MLAS, is also an alternate design left over from the Constellation program. MLAS is kind of nifty in that it consists of four solid rockets attached to a shell that fits over the top of the crew capsule. In the event of an emergency, the four Terrier rockets ignite and carry the crew to a safe distance, whereupon the assembly pops a couple of parachutes to orient itself upright, and then (presumably) more parachutes to drop it to safety. That last part is interesting, again because the CCM was designed for water landings to match Orion. ATK says they’re examining a way to bring it down on land, which they would have to do in the event of a pad abort.

The last portion of the announcement was that ATK would use the venerable Launch Pad 39B from NASA for testing, and plans to launch Liberty with an already-existing mobile launcher. ATK didn’t say whether they would build their own platforms.


One of the most surprising claims ATK’s Kent Rominger made during the press conference was “great customer service.” Those are unusual words coming from a defense contractor. ATK seems to realize that they have some skepticism to overcome.

Rominger spoke of having Liberty ready for crewed launches by 2015, fairly soon compared to their competitors. But it’s plausible because they have re-purposed many existing components (which also keeps their development costs very low). Those costs won’t be amortized into ATK’s launch prices, giving them a big advantage. NASA is even paying to man-rate Liberty’s SRB due to its role in Ares.

The announcement also mentioned markets: space tourism, developing nations that want a space program, International Space Station servicing, and commercial cargo. Liberty will reportedly take 44,500 pounds to LEO, almost twice what a Falcon 9 can throw. In short, Alliant Techsystems has surprised many of us with a formidable new entrant into the commercial launch market.

Credit: ars technica

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