Launching Liberty: ATK and NASA Enter Into Agreement to Develop Liberty Rocket

Alliant Techsystems and NASA have entered into an unfunded Space Act Agreement to develop the Liberty rocket. Photo Credit: ATK

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – ATK’s Liberty rocket has been given a “go.”  The launch vehicle, which is derived from elements of ATK’s (Alliant Techsystems) Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) and the upper stage of EADS’s Ariane V rocket. The agreement that the Liberty rocket has been approved under is what is known as a Space Act Agreement (SAA) and is unfunded. The announcement was made at the Kennedy Space Center press site’s auditorium in Florida Tuesday at 3 p.m. EDT. 

With ATK’s addition – the fleet of potential spacecraft and launch vehicles could mean that the space agency will not only be able to return to human space flight operations sooner – but with a more diverse range of vehicles to do so as well. 

ATK's Kent Rominger and John Schumaker with EADS discuss the Space Act Agreement that the producers of the Liberty launcher have signed with NASA at a press conference held at NASA's Kennedy SPace Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The proposal to use the Liberty launch vehicle could help to reduce the human space flight “gap” that NASA is currently experiencing. As the company that produces the Ariane V, EADS, is a European firm this deal also works to fulfill the White House’s wishes that space endeavors be conducted on an international level. More importantly – ATK has stated that they could be ready to launch as early as 2015. 

After the Ares I launcher was scrapped along with most of the rest of the Constellation Program by the Obama Administration ATK looked into ways to preserve the project. ATK was one of the first to see the commercial crewed writing on the wall and went to work revamping the project. With a far lower cost, international partner and a new paint job – Liberty was born. 

Liberty was developed using legacy hardware from the space shuttle and Ariane V systems. Image Credit: ATK

The rationale behind why the Liberty announcement was made at KSC – was highlighted by ATK’s Vice-President for Test and Research Operations, Kent Rominger. 

“We want to launch Liberty from Kennedy Space Center,” said Rominger. “Our concept of operations is based around KSC assets such as the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Liberty will be processed much in the same manner as the space shuttle was – so KSC is central to Liberty’s operations.” 

NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager Ed Mango joined Rminger and Schumaker in Tuesday's announcement that the space agency would work with ATK to develop the Liberty launch vehicle. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

With the inclusion of Liberty – most elements of the Constellation Program are back in place. Liberty could potentially be the launch vehicle that sends astronauts to orbits, the Space Launch System which closely resembles the Ares V is currently in development, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is still in place as is the Lunar Electric Rover (although it has been renamed the “Space Exploration Vehicle”). The only element that has yet to be resurrected is the over-arching ‘Vision for Space Exploration’ – which directed NASA to go to the “Moon, Mars and Beyond.” 

If all works out with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program NASA could see a problem that faced the space agency in the wake of the Challenger and Columbia accidents – erased. After the loss of each of the orbiters NASA was unable to launch astronauts to orbit for a period of roughly two years. With Liberty and man-rated versions of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – if one of these launch vehicles experienced an in-flight anomaly NASA could simply switch to another launcher while any problem with another rocket is being investigated. This of course depends on whether-or-not NASA receives the funding to accomplish this.

A wide range of spacecraft could potentially be launched into orbit atop the Liberty rocket. Image Credit: ATK
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