Next generation of space travel revealed

May 11 2012 - 3:28pm

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PROMONTORY -- The space race of the 21st century is one fought in the private sector, and ATK has unveiled its bid for the next generation of space travel.

Earlier this week, ATK announced the completion of Liberty, its commercial spacecraft that could take off for test flights by 2014.

ATK hopes to have astronauts and other customers taking off into low-Earth orbit by 2016, in the event it wins a coveted NASA contract this summer.

NASA used to have shuttles ferry supplies and people to and from the International Space Station, but the fleet was retired last year. The decision was a hard blow to ATK's facility in Promontory, which built the solid rocket boosters.

After the government retired the shuttles, the company's Promontory facility laid off hundreds of people.

Now that NASA is dependent on pricey Russian rockets to reach the station, the space agency wants private companies to take over the role.

If NASA goes with ATK, that translates to new hires for the Promontory site to start building motors for the project. Former astronaut Kent Rominger, vice president and project manager for Liberty, expects the site would at least double its current motor production and he'd start looking for new employees right away.

Liberty was primarily developed in Promontory, though ATK foresees its success generating thousands of new jobs across at least eight other states as well.

He hopes NASA gets on board with ATK's proposal, as the company needs to win NASA's funding to stay on schedule. So far, all of Liberty's development has been funded internally through ATK and its partner company Astrium, according to an ATK news release.

But several other companies are vying for NASA's contract, which is expected to be announced this summer.

Ahead in the industry is SpaceX and its Dragon capsule. SpaceX unveiled a life-size model of Dragon at the first annual Spacecraft Technology Expo in Los Angeles on May 9.

Even though SpaceX is three months behind schedule, it plans to launch the real Dragon capsule on an unmanned cargo run to the ISS as early as this week, becoming the first private company to accomplish what only governments have done so far.

ATK announced its completion of Liberty at the expo on May 9 as well, though their next step, a structural test of the second stage tank, is slated for June.

Rominger feels confident that Liberty is safe, reliable and "the best value that's being offered for our nation's space program."

Liberty, which has enough room in its capsule for seven people, is designed to fly in two stages. The first is a time-tested, five-segment solid booster. Its second stage is a liquid booster from Astrium.

ATK also subcontracted with Lockheed Martin to provide guidance navigation, environmental controls and docking systems, among other forms of support.

Rominger declined to offer any comments about ATK's competition.

Regardless of who wins the race, space travel is on the verge of a new, private era -- and for ATK, a life beyond the space shuttle and potentially even NASA.

ATK has its sights on broadening its potential customers to include other countries that want to hire the Liberty for science missions, Rominger said. They may even allow individual people to hire the Liberty, if they can afford it.

"It really is a broad-reaching market," Rominger said.

Michael Braukus, spokesman for NASA, declined to comment, as the space agency is, by law, not allowed to say anything while it is evaluating the commercial proposals.

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