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AmericaSpace Exclusive: Q&A With Team Liberty

ATK and fellow Liberty launch system partner EADS Astrium announced that it will complete the Liberty system by adding a spacecraft to the Liberty system. Lockheed-Martin has signed on to assist in the development of the Liberty spacecraft. Photo Credit: ATK

As NASA redirects its focus, energy and funding toward commercial, public-private efforts, companies within NASA’s family of contractors have adapted their efforts and offerings to reflect this new direction. One such company, ATK, has announced that it is now including a spacecraft into the mix. Initially dubbed the Composite Crew Module, the Liberty spacecraft as it is now called is the culmination of work started by ATK and Eads an Astrium Company. These two aerospace firms have been joined by a third -Lockheed Martin, which has come on board to assist in the development of the spacecraft.

This means ATK joins a very elite club, a fraternity of about only five companies that produce launch vehicles, launch abort systems and spacecraft – all under one roof. Moreover, only SpaceX and ATK have combined these separate elements into a single, integrated system. AmericaSpace sat down with officials from each of the three firms to talk about the potential benefits of this new integrated system. ATK’s Vice President of Advanced Programs, Kent Rominger, EADS North America’s Vice-President John Schumacher and Scott Norris who is responsible for Lockheed-Martin’s Human Space Flight Space Systems sat down and chatted with AmericaSpace about the Liberty spacecraft and what they think it means for the commercial space flight effort.

Video Courtesy of ATKRocketNews

AmericaSpace: Good afternoon gentlemen, thanks for taking the time to chat with AmericaSpace regarding this announcement. 

AmericaSpace: The first question we have is when and where did the idea to make Liberty be a complete launch system, including the recently announced Liberty spacecraft? 

Rominger: “We started working on Liberty a couple years ago and when CCDev2 was announced (The second phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program) we submitted Liberty and the evaluation team loved it, we got rated the top launch vehicle with very high marks both technically and in the business-side of Liberty. In both these areas we rate ‘green’ and ‘green.’ In the debrief NASA said to us, ‘Hey guys, you don’t have the whole system, you don’t have a spacecraft.’ That got us thinking and we realized that the Composite Crew Module would fit really well with the Liberty launcher. We actually started working on the Composite Crew Module back in 2007.”

Video Courtesy of NASATelevision

AmericaSpace: So, in essence, a simple statement from the NASA CCDev Review Team has led ATK to where it is today? 

Rominger: “Essentially, yes. Now keep it mind that the Liberty spacecraft will leverage everything that has been done so far, all the research and systems that have been developed for it over the course of the last five years. We realized that we were very launch vehicle-centric. The truth is, in the commercial world, there is a big advantage to having control of the entire stack (the “stack” refers to all the components that comprise the launch vehicle on launch day – including the spacecraft). So rather than work with somebody else to develop a capsule or space plane – we have complete control – which is really, really nice.”

AmericaSpace: Is there a specific motivation behind undertaking this? 

Rominger: “This allows us to control the schedule; pricing and we feel it will be crucial in allowing Liberty to fly humans. However, we want this system to also be used to launched cargo, cargo and crew and even satellites.”

Both NASA and ATK have worked to develop the five-segment booster that will comprise the first stage of the Liberty system. Photo Credit: NASA

AmericaSpace: What will Lockheed-Martin’s role be in this? 

Norris: “We’re providing support to ATK, they’ve done a bunch of work in years-gone-by on the Composite Crew Module obviously with our experience recently we have built a great supply chain and we understand how to fulfill the requirements using the different subsystems, you know there is structures and mechanisms, parachutes and docking systems, thermal protection and GNC (Guidance Navigation Computers) and avionics and all the environmental control elements. So ATK approached us and asked us if we wanted to help and we feel that enabling the commercial folks to be more affordable is in everyone’s best interest so we agreed to assist. ATK asked us to help with subsystem selection and simplification of the subsystems for LEO (low-Earth-orbit) missions. So that’s primarily what we’re doing, we’ve come up with a preliminary design we’re continuing to analyze so as to get both the mass and cost down as well as to make the overall spacecraft simpler – while at the same time ensuring that we meet all of the stringent deep-space requirements.”

AmericaSpace: Will Lockheed-Martin bring anything else to the table? 

Norris: “We have facilities in Denver and Houston that have laboratories that allow you to ‘test-like-you-fly’ that we will use to verify the flight hardware and software before you even take it out to the pad. So I think we have a role in getting ATK to the next Integrated Critical Design Review.”

AmericaSpace: We’d like to take a step back and address something that we briefly mentioned in the beginning. The Liberty spacecraft system will be capable of doing what Soyuz/Progress currently does – as well as some of what launch systems utilized by United Launch Alliance does as well – correct? 

Rominger is a five-time shuttle veteran. Before he joined NASA he was a naval aviator who served in Desert Storm. Photo Credit: NASA

Rominger: “The first priority is crew our schedule with an ICAP award has us flying in 2015, but by that time we will have already been working on a cargo version. NASA’s space station cargo contract will reopen in 2016, so it is also high on our priority list to be a cargo supplier. In addition, when you look at folks out there like Bigelow Aerospace we think we can offer him crew and significant cargo on the same flight. This is something that he might have to get from two vehicle’s-worth of flights – that we can offer on just one. It’s my plan to make him an offer that is the best value. In addition to crew and crew and cargo there is a third version of Liberty which is the satellite configuration of the system.”

AmericaSpace: Do you think that this will make Liberty more attractive than some of the competitors? 

Rominger: “If you look at the competitors out there, SpaceX and ATK, you can make the argument that business-case wise, since we’re not just dependent on launching crew, that we have a more diverse and therefore more secure foundation – then we should have a stronger business case.”

Norris: “I’d like to add that it’s much easier to start with a human-rated design from top to bottom and then going to cargo is far simpler than having a non-human rated launcher and trying to make that launch vehicle meet those stringent requirements.”

Rominger: “Exactly and when you tie that to the fact that the upper stage of Liberty is also human rated (the Ariane 5 was developed to launch the European Space Agency’s Hermes space shuttle) and that we have the ability to test our designs in some of the best laboratories available to us for testing purposes.”

Norris: “We already have engineering development mockups and simulators available to us in Houston and Denver.”

Lockheed-Martin has been working on the Orion spacecraft since September of 2006. The company has a number of facilities, simulators and test equipment which are suited for use in developing the Liberty spacecraft. Photo Credit: Jeffrey J. Soulliere

Rominger: “Exactly, but not only do we have the infrastructure already in place, we also have all of the manufacturing lines up and running, for both the first and second stage. What that really means is, my development costs are dramatically lower that what anyone else out there can offer. Another huge advantage for us is the simple fact that the facilities at Kennedy Space Center are already designed around these systems.”

Schumacher: “I would just add that one of the very exciting aspects of this design that you touched on is that we have this highly-experienced team who have already flown to the International Space Station three times via the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) in the last four years. As you know, Liberty’s first stage is, essentially, the liquid-fueled core of an Ariane 5 – which has had 47 successful consecutive flights. For us to be allowed to rendezvous, dock and conduct operations at the space station we too had to undergo a very rigorous NASA certification process. This is just one more layer of experience that the Liberty team has built into it from the outset.”

AmericaSpace: John, the elements of the Ariane 5 used on Liberty were obviously not intended to do so – how much modification of these systems is required to get them to mesh together? 

Schumacher: “There is some work that is needed. There are two key parts that are required. The first of these is needed because the liquid-fueled core will go from being a first to an upper stage is an overall strengthening of the structure. The second element is the fact that we will need to air-start the engine. Fortunately there a very effective, straight-forward approaches to make these changes – and they are already under way.”

The upper stage of Liberty is actually the liquid-fueled core of the Ariane 5. This element is the Ariane 5's lower stage and modifications have to be made to convert it from a ground started to air-started configuration. Image Credit: ATK

AmericaSpace: Florida’s Space Coast has been dramatically impacted by the political turmoil that has impacted the space program. If all goes according to plan, Liberty could be very beneficial to the region could it not? 

Rominger: “We’re Florida based in terms of Liberty. So we have test flights in 2014 that will be closely followed by two test flights in 2015. The second flight in 2015 will be a crewed flight.”

AmericaSpace: In essence ATK is looking to make the space flight gap last just a few years. 

Rominger: “Absolutely, in fact as an American taxpayer who dearly cares about our space flight program – I don’t want us to languish any longer than we have to. There also is an inherent risk there. The longer programs drag out (before going into service) the more expensive they become and therefore they are far more likely to be cancelled. We are not only working to circumvent that but to also provide the U.S. space program with a price-per-seat that is significantly lower than the $63 million-a-seat the Russians currently charge.”

Work on the Composite Crew Module was started in 2007 by NASA's Langley Research Center, ATK and others. Photo Credit: ATK

AmericaSpace: We know that you gentlemen have a lot on your plate today, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to share with our viewers? 

Rominger: “I would just like to close by saying that we’re competitively priced with a vast majority of the folks that are out there and when you include the experience and wealth of resources and capabilities at our disposal – we’re a great value. Our goal is to provide our nation with a flexible commercial system that was designed for the 21st Century and to meet strict safety and reliability goals. Experts have placed the potential loss of a vehicle at 1 in 1000, actually I think it is even better than that (the study Rominger is referring to was done by Valador and the odds it gave were 1 in 1,300). We’re very proud of this and we want to offer it in multiple markets. Simply put? We could revolutionize commercial space as we know it today”

If everything proceeds according to plan, ATK could be conducting test flights of Liberty - as soon as 2014. Image Credit: ATK

Norris: “One of our interests is aiding NASA’s initial concept of turning over access to low-Earth-orbit to commercial industry to make it more affordable so that funds can be freed up for deep space exploration missions. If we can enable that vision by aiding ATK meet its objective and we’re open to helping commercial folks any way that we can.”

Schumacher: “I’d like to reiterate what Kent and Scott have already said, we now have a whole system that we are proud of and excited about. We can launch anyone else’s spacecraft as well, anything that weighs approximately 44,500 lbs – we can do that. Now we also have tremendous opportunities in the U.S. satellite market as well. Liberty is proven launch providers offering the capacity to lift crew, cargo and satellites to well. I think you can tell that we are all very excited about what Liberty means.”

AmericaSpace: Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. 

All: “Thanks!”

One of the things that might have been missed during last week’s announcement is that if ATK stays on-schedule with unmanned missions in 2014, crewed test flights the following year and actual missions to low-Earth-orbit by 2017 – the Utah-based firm could beat every other contender in the commercial space race.

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Video Courtesy of LibertyLaunch

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