Six months ago, I would have predicted that ULA would win this in a walk with the Atlas V over ATK’s Liberty rocket. Atlas V has a flawless flight history, can be human rated, and is relatively inexpensive as rockets go.
However, I’m not quite so sure now. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Boeing chose Liberty.
That idea probably sounds crazy to many of my NewSpace friends. But, I think that ATK’s booster has been underrated since it was announced six months ago. The rocket has a number of strengths that have been largely overlooked, and it is being taken seriously by both NASA and Boeing.
When ATK and Astrium unveiled Liberty in February, the rocket was largely dismissed as a desperate attempt to revive NASA’s canceled (and much reviled) Ares I booster by a company desperate to avoid massive layoffs. The vehicle’s odd shape — a five-segment solid rocket booster first stage topped with the first stage of the Ariane 5 — quickly earned it the derisive moniker “corndog” after the deep fried hot dogs on a stick that are sold in malls across America.
The fact that ATK — not known for competing on price — was billing this as a commercial rocket made the whole venture seem even more foolhardy to critics. Surely, the booster would survive only long enough to be rejected for CCDev funding, at which point it would quietly fade away, notwithstanding ATK’s claims that it would develop Liberty with or without NASA funding.
But, a funny thing happened to the rocket on the way to becoming a footnote in the annals of rocketry. NASA invited ATK down to Houston to discuss its proposal for CCDev 2 funding further. That might be explained away as the space agency covering its ass by giving due consideration to a contractor favored by powerful members of Congress. But, there may have been more to it than that.
The CCDev 2 Selection Statement included some surprising findings: Liberty scored very high in the CCDev 2 evaluation on both technical and business criteria. In fact, the rocket outscored ULA’s Atlas V, which NASA had already funded.
|Very High Level of Confidence|
|High Level of Confidence|
|Moderate Level of Confidence|
|Low Level of Confidence|
|Very Low Level of Confidence|
ATK’s proposal rated higher on both Technical Approach and Business Information, receiving the second highest rating (Green – High Level of Confidence) possible on NASA’s color-coded rating system. ULA, which had received $6.7 million to develop its system under CCDev 1, received White ratings (Moderate Level of Confidence) in both categories.
Ultimately, NASA decided to fund spacecraft development only for CCDev 2. This was a big break for ATK, which would have time to resolve the outstanding technical and business concerns about Liberty. The next round of CCDev funding will not be awarded until the middle of 2012.
One of the biggest problems with the proposal was that none of the CCDev competitors had agreed to fly on Liberty. As Philip McAlister, acting director of Commercial Spaceflight Development for NASA, explained in his Selection Statement:
This was a significant concern on my part, as NASA could fund the Liberty all the way through the development phase and there would be the possibility that no spacecraft developer would select that launch vehicle as part of its CTS design, thereby not advancing an orbital CTS concept which was the key goal of the Announcement.
ATK set about solving that concern by courting Boeing, the most experienced team in the CCDev competition. Now, it made plenty of business sense for Boeing to negotiate with several potential vendors. Boeing is also designing the CST-100 to be booster neutral, i.e., it could fly on a number of rockets. Liberty also had enough margin to accommodate any weight in the seven-person CST-100 vehicle.
Another problem ATK had to overcome was high cost.The SRBs are not cheap, and there are serious doubts about whether they and the Ariane 5 first stage can be produced at low enough costs to make Liberty a truly competitive commercial rocket.
I talked to an ATK engineer during the International Space Development Conference in Huntsville back in May. He said that the company would be able to produce the Liberty at a cost significantly below what ULA was offering for the Atlas V. If I recall, he was talking about a price that was about $50 million lower. The upgraded boosters that had been developed under Ares I would be cheaper because they incorporated changes that NASA had not allowed to be used on the shuttle version.
He also pointed to the human ratings for both the first stage (developed to carry astronauts on the Orion spacecraft) and the second stage (designed for Europe’s canceled Hermes space shuttle). The Atlas V booster — which has proven highly reliable for satellite launches — will require human rating work to carry astronauts.
The infrastructure to support Liberty launch operations is already in place from the space shuttle program. The Atlas V, by contrast, would require infrastructure improvements because existing launch pads are not designed for astronaut ingress and egress.
I’m not sure what Boeing is going to announce tomorrow. But, if they do pick Liberty, it’s going to shock many people and shake up the CCDev booster competition. The canceled Ares I will have risen improbably from dead, albeit in a very different configuration.
This could have a major impact on NASA’s plans for the shuttle-derived Space Launch System, which will likely use ATK’s SRBs. If the company can really produce the SRBs at a much lower cost, and the economies of scale associated with Liberty drive unit costs down even further, perhaps the heavy-lift vehicle becomes more affordable.
There’s also the intriguing question of why NASA has taken so long to announce its decision about SLS. Could it have been waiting to see what Boeing selected? How would such a selection affect financial and programmatic decisions that NASA must make?
It will be very interesting to see what Boeing announces tomorrow.