ATK push for US space flight independence via Liberty

by Chris Bergin

While the United States celebrated its Independence Day on Wednesday, the most powerful nation on the planet still finds itself years away from regaining its own domestic crewed launch ability. Several companies are competing for a NASA contract to change that situation, including ATK – who are pushing forward with their Liberty Transportation System.

Regaining Independence:

When Atlantis safely returned her crew back to Earth just under a year ago, her wheels stop on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) marked the end of the United States’ ability to transport its own astronauts into space.

A gap in capability was always going be something the country would have to endure, due to the “funding impossibility” of running the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) and International Space Station (ISS) at the same time as developing a new vehicle to be online shortly after the final flight of the orbiter fleet.

As such, an undesirable outsourcing of launch services to the Russians was required, as NASA signed away $100s of millions of its own funding to purchase seats on the Soyuz, the only option available to them if they wanted to continue a US presence on an orbital outpost that was mainly paid for by Americans.

This situation will change, with the Agency focused on what is their number one priority of aiding an array of commercial companies, via NASA money, to develop their own launch vehicles and crew transports – systems that NASA can then use, via the purchasing of services under contract, to regain their domestic crew launch capability.

The partnership between NASA and the commercial sector currently involves companies such as SpaceX – with their Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, already ahead of the curve following their successful debut cargo run to the ISS.

Blue Origin and their biconic spacecraft are also involved in the NASA partnership, as are industry stalwart Boeing, who are proposing the use of the Atlas V launch vehicle to loft their CST-100 spacecraft into orbit, and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s crowd favorite, the Dream Chaser, also set to launch on the Atlas V.

These options will be downselected, likely this year, based on the completion of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) milestones.

ATK’s Liberty Transportation System:

One vehicle that isn’t mentioned in the CCDev list is ATK’s Liberty Transportation System, an omission that is becoming somewhat ironic, given some NASA sources (L2 Link to Liberty Updates and Resources) claim Liberty is actually becoming a favorite option of some high ranking Agency managers.

Liberty was one of the suitors of CCDev funding, before losing out to the four aforementioned options during the selection process. However, ATK decided to press on with the development of the system under an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA), with a clear intent of convincing NASA they deserve to be awarded funding for the path towards crewed launches.

Indeed, ATK have stated that they will continue with the development of Liberty regardless of NASA funding, as much as Agency support would provide an accelerated schedule towards bringing the vehicle into operation by 2015.

Liberty is the only commercial vehicle that will launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – a major plus point, per NASA’s intentions of converting the Florida launch site into an active 21st Century spaceport, launching not just the Space Launch System (SLS), but also commercial vehicles from its “clean pad” at 39B, before potentially including 39A – currently a mothballed “Shuttle Pad”.

ATK will build a second “Ares I” style Mobile Launcher (ML), following the repurposing of the first ML to the SLS program.

It will be transported to the pad via one of the Crawler Transporters, following launch vehicle integration inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

During the processing flow, the Liberty spacecraft may be housed inside the Operations & Checkout (O&C) building, pending negotiations with KSC. Should this become a reality, the Liberty spacecraft will become a neighbor of NASA’s Orion capsule.

A large amount of work has already been completed on the vehicle processing side for the first stage, given it is a five segment Solid Rocket Booster (SRB), the same system that was to be used by Ares 1, prior to its demise after the cancellation of the Constellation Program (CxP).

However, the similarities with Ares 1’s hardware end when referencing the Upper Stage, given it is actually the Core Stage (EPC) of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle used by Arianespace.

This stage will be supplied under contract with EADS/Astrium North America, who have successfully completed a set of tests on tank structures, proving the key design and manufacturing processes are ready to enter the production stage.

Astrium are working on the machining, forming, computerized automatic welding and inspection of cryogenic tank elements to provide the increased thickness and stiffened profiles necessary for the Liberty second stage. An additional tank panel of increased thickness was welded and tested in a cryogenic environment at the Euro Cryospace facilities.

These successful tests have demonstrated Astrium’s manufacturing technology has the capability to process panels that are several times thicker than those of Ariane 5, meeting the needs for the strengthened cryogenic tanks of Liberty’s second stage.

“These tests take the Liberty second stage one step closer to production. They demonstrate conclusively that our proven processes can manufacture thicker and stiffer cryogenic tanks for the Liberty second stage,” noted Alain Charmeau, CEO of Astrium Space Transportation.

“Welding, machining, and forming space hardware is a highly sophisticated industrial process. Our extensive experience in manufacturing all Ariane launchers has given us comprehensive and unmatched capability that we can now utilize for a new commercial space transportation system – Liberty.”

This success provided an important boost to ATK’s intentions of conducting unmanned test flights in 2014 and 2015, followed by the first crewed flights in late 2015 with Liberty astronauts.

Liberty teams also successfully completed a software TIM (Technical Interchange Meeting) – held at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.’s Boulder campus and at the Lockheed Martin Waterton facility near Denver – to evaluate Liberty’s software development plan with the NASA Liberty team.

The plan governs the software process used by Liberty and its subcontractors throughout development, integration, test and flight.

“Understanding how your system will work together throughout the mission is critical in reducing risk and schedule delays,” said Kent Rominger, ATK Vice President and Program Manager for Liberty. “Holding this TIM provides us valuable insight into expertise provided by the NASA team and ensures there are no issues we are overlooking.”

The Liberty program also announced an independent assessment team – led by former NASA astronaut Bryan O’Connor – to be used to advise the company on development of its commercial human certification plan for the Liberty system, which includes the launch vehicle, upper stage, abort system, composite spacecraft, ground and mission operations, crew and passenger training and a test flight crew.

“I am looking forward to working with ATK on their commercial human certification plan for Liberty,” said Mr O’Connor. “It is extremely important to get this plan right. Fortunately, they have a head start because all of Liberty’s subsystems were originally designed to be human-rated.”

With a large amount of testing and development already completed on the first stage, a proven second stage design heading towards production, and the Liberty Composite Crew Module (CCM) undergoing leak-testing in a vacuum chamber at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), ATK are already looking towards the in-space capability of their highly capable system.

Such evaluations have resulted in the announcement of an extended cargo configuration will allow the Liberty spacecraft to take full advantage of the launch vehicle lift capacity to transport a pressurized pod – the Liberty Logistics Module or LLM – along with the composite crew module.

Based on NASA’s 15-foot diameter Multi-Purpose Logistic Module (MPLM) design, the LLM will include a common berthing mechanism (CBM) and will be capable of transporting up to 5,100 pounds of pressurized cargo. With that capability, the LLM could be used to transport four full-size science racks to the ISS – along with a team of scientists to perform the associated science.

“Liberty’s expanded service allows us to bring a commercial capability delivering up to seven crew members, 5,000 pounds of pressurized cargo, along with external cargo in a single flight,” added Mr Rominger. “This results in tremendous value since all other commercial offerings would need two flights to accomplish what Liberty does in one.”

On the smaller side of transporting upmass to space, ATK and Astrium North America also announced they have signed a teaming agreement with NanoRacks, LLC, allowing them to market rides of these tiny spacecraft on board Liberty.

“The possibilities with Liberty are exponential,” said Jeff Manber, CEO of NanoRacks. “For the first time we are offering people across the globe an opportunity to use Liberty to create their own missions of exploration and discovery. This will greatly expand the use of the ISS for research and also create novel missions using Liberty in low Earth orbit.”

While the above is not subject to NASA funding, Liberty aspirations with the Agency will aiming for good news when NASA push forward with the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap), technically the next step past the CCDev-2 process.

(Images: Via L2, NASA, Astrium and ATK)  (NSF and L2 are providing full transition level coverage, available no where else on the internet, from Orion and SLS to ISS and COTS/CRS/CCDEV, to European and Russian vehicles.

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