ULA continue their transition back into the human space flight arena

by Chris Bergin

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) – best known in recent years for their high end payload launch services – are continuing their transition back into Human Space Flight operations. With an early history in human launches stretching back to safely sending astronaut John Glenn into space, ULA’s Atlas V is the preferred launch vehicle for several Commercial Crew suitors.

ULA Human Launch Services Organization:

Monday’s announcement noted the formation of ULA’s Human Launch Services organization, dedicated to supporting NASA and its partners in the development of capabilities to deliver American astronauts to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and human exploration beyond Earth orbit (BEO).

“NASA is making tremendous progress towards closing the U.S. human spaceflight gap and we are committed to supporting them with our flight-proven Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles and technologies,” said Michael Gass, ULA president and CEO.

“ULA understands that human spaceflight requires the utmost attention to safety and reliability and the new organization will focus our energy and attention towards those crucial goals.”

ULA’s Human Launch Services Organization will be led by Dr. George Sowers. Prior to this position, Sowers headed ULA’s Business Development and Advanced Programs team and brings with him more than 25 years of launch systems design, development and integration expertise.  

ULA are one of the favorites to provide launch services for several crewed spacecraft who are currently working under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) process, with the ultimate aim of winning a NASA contract to provide domestic crew access to the International Space Station (ISS).

The company is currently working on human rating their highly reliable Atlas V – via a Space Act Agreement (SAA) – to become the launch vehicle of choice for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, Boeing’s CST-100 and initially Blue Origin’s biconic-shape capsule.

Teams are specifically working on the Emergency Detection System (EDS) – 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.

The Atlas V is a 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.

SNC recently noted their vehicle is a good match with the Atlas V, adding a lot of integration work has already been evaluated with the Atlas V and Dream Chaser over the last six to seven years. The company expect that hardware testing with the Atlas V – from an integration standpoint – will be the next major phase of marrying the two systems together, ahead of their combined launch into orbit in the coming years.

The vehicle is closing in on 30 consecutive launch successes – a milestone that would overhaul the 100 mark for the Atlas program as a whole.

The 29th success for the Atlas V was marked with the launch of the first of five U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites in February of this year, the heaviest payload to be launched by an Atlas rocket to date. The successful mission also marked the 200th launch of the Centaur upper stage.

The next launch of the Atlas V is scheduled for May out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), with the mission tasked with launching the second Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite for the the USAF’s Space Command.

ATLAS V FUTURE FEATURE: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2011/11/the-respected-atlas-v-making-early-strides-transition/

The vehicle’s heritage reaches back to the first human launches and is well placed – alongside one of the other commercial crew favorites, Space X – to end the current reliance on the Russians for crew services, following the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet.

“ULA is extremely proud of our heritage in human spaceflight beginning 50 years ago with the Mercury/Atlas launch delivering John Glenn to orbit,” added Dr. Sowers. “We look forward to working with NASA and our commercial crew customers to leverage our unprecedented success record with Atlas V and Delta IV to meet the nation’s need for assured access and crew safety for missions to the International Space Station and other destinations.”

The commercial crew effort was targeting a return to domestic launch capability for US astronauts by the middle of the decade. However, due to budgetary issues, 2017 is being noted as the current goal.

The ULA Human Launch Services Organization will be based in Denver, and will have resident support at key NASA Centers. The organization will draw upon the same engineering, production and operations expertise currently supporting ULA’s national security and NASA science customers.

“The new organization will draw upon the same processes and people that have made our launch vehicles the most reliable in the world,” said Sowers. “The intent is to leverage our successful heritage while providing our human spaceflight customers with an organization focused exclusively on their needs.”

The news follows the recent announcement by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) that they have assembled an independent Safety Advisory Panel for their Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles.

(Images: L2 Content, NASA CCDev, SNC, ULA, Boeing)

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