NASA and ULA agree SAA to complete the human rating of Atlas V

by Chris Bergin

NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) have announced an agreement for technical support via NASA’s Commercial Crew Program focusing on the human rating of the Atlas V launch vehicle. The unfunded act is expected to result in certifying Atlas V to launch NASA astronauts riding in vehicles such as the Dream Chaser, Boeing CST-100 and Blue Origin’s spacecraft.

Atlas V HR:

The Atlas V is an active expendable launch system in the Atlas rocket family, a family which has a heritage in launching humans into space. Atlas V was formerly operated by Lockheed Martin, and is now operated by the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture ULA.

The two stage rocket is driven by the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine – a kerosene/liquid oxygen derivative of the RD-170 engine developed for the Zenit boosters of the Energia rocket – with a Centaur Upper Stage powered by Pratt & Whitney’s RL10 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Atlas V configurations can include Aerojet strap-on boosters.

With 26 launches under its belt since its maiden launch in 2002, the Atlas V has a 100 percent mission success rate, as much as the NRO L-30 mission in 2007 saw an earlier-than-planned shutdown of the Centaur upper stage, resulting in both its passengers being placed in an lower-than-intended orbit. The customer still classed the mission as successful.

The Atlas V is a flight-proven expendable launch vehicle and is currently used by NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) for critical space missions to launch highly expensive payloads into orbit. Now, Atlas V will walk down the path of proving it can be entrusted with launching humans into orbit.

This process is being kick-started via the unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) announced on Monday, which will see NASA collect technical information from ULA on the Atlas V to develop an understanding of system capability for human spaceflight.

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According to the space agency, NASA will provide feedback to ULA based on its human spaceflight experience for advancing Crew Transportation System (CTS) capabilities and the draft human certification requirements. In turn, ULA will provide NASA feedback on those requirements, including providing input on the technical feasibility and cost effectiveness of NASA’s proposed certification approach.

ULA’s obligations include; continuing to advance the Atlas V CTS concept, including design maturation and analyses. Conduct ULA program reviews as planned, Perform a Design Equivalency Review (DER). Develop Hazard Analyses unique for human spaceflight. Develop a Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA). Document Atlas V CTS certification baseline. Conduct Systems Requirements Review (SRR).

The majority of this process is expected to be completed by the end of this year (2011), with the SAA allowing ULA to work with NASA to gain invaluable insight into their unparalled expertise in Human Spaceflight. Through this SAA, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and ULA will establish an Atlas V system baseline compliance with NASA Crew Transportation System (CTS) requirements and processes.

“This unfunded SAA will look at the Atlas V to understand its design risks, its capabilities, how it can be used within the context of flying our NASA crew and maturing ULA’s designs for the Emergency Detection System (EDS) and launch vehicle processing and launch architectures under a crewed configuration,” noted Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager.

In 2010, ULA was awarded $6.7 million by NASA to accompany its own $1.3 million investment to develop an Emergency Detection System prototype test bed. The EDS will monitor critical launch vehicle and spacecraft systems and issue status, warning and abort commands to crew during their mission to low Earth orbit.

EDS is the sole significant element necessary for flight safety to meet the requirements to certify ULA’s launch vehicles for human spaceflight, a certification ULA are confident of acquiring.

“We believe this effort will demonstrate to NASA that our systems are fully compliant with NASA requirements for human spaceflight,” noted George Sowers, vice president of business development. “ULA looks forward to continued work with NASA to develop a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability providing safe, reliable, and cost effective access to and return from low Earth orbit and the International Space Station.”

The effort to human rate the Atlas V has been characterized as “on-going”. Evidence of this can be seen as far back as 2007, when SpaceDev announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ULA to pursue the potential of launching people and cargo on the Dream Chaser vehicle atop of the Atlas V.

With another agreement already in place with Bigelow at the time, documentation surrounding the Dream Chaser MOU expressed confidence in man-rating the Atlas V 401 and 402 with minimal modifications, allowing the use of the vehicle for commercial passenger transportation and ISS missions.

Now, in 2011, Dream Chaser – a vehicle in the Sierra Nevada Corporation stable – along with Blue Origin and their biconic-shape capsule, are confirmed customers to be lofted uphill by the Atlas V, following the award of four Space Act Agreements in the second round of the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2), a commercial effort aimed to foster domestic crew transportation by the middle of the decade.

According to ULA, those two companies recognize that the use of the flight proven and NASA Certified Atlas V eliminates all risk of launch vehicle development and early flight failures inherent in new, unproven designs – something which gives ULA an advantage over commercial “rival” SpaceX.

Boeing’s CST-100 capsule is yet to confirm its launch vehicle of choice, although the Atlas V would be capable of carrying out that role.

Notably, the SAA only covers the Atlas V – the vehicle funded under NASA CCDev2 Partner agreements which selected Atlas V for their Commercial Transportation System launch vehicle. However, ULA note both Atlas V and Delta IV – the other main ULA vehicle – offer the distinct advantages of flight-demonstrated reliability with a long heritage.

However, with Atlas V selected for technical and business considerations unique to their needs, the vehicle offers some very important benefits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In particular, the Atlas family has a demonstrated reliability with 97 consecutive successes, making Atlas V is the highest confidence, lowest risk launch vehicle.

After all, the argument of trusting the vehicle to launch humans can be seen via Atlas V’s Category 3 certification by NASA, allowing ULA to launch their most expensive, crucial exploration missions, such as Pluto New Horizons, and the upcoming JUNO missions to Jupiter, along with the MSL mission to Mars.

With the unfunded SAA agreement in place, ULA will push on with on-going internal efforts, now with NASA participation, to be coincident with the CCDev2 Period of Performance, which is currently scheduled to conclude in the 2Q of 2012.

ULA will work on establishing the Human Spaceflight baseline for Atlas V, which will involve all aspects of their business from design, manufacturing, and launch operations. The effort will be lead from ULA’s Denver Headquarters, with required participation from the company’s production facility in Decatur, Alabama, and their Florida launch operations facility.

(Images via ULA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin)

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