A Rocket Called 'Liberty' Rises From Ares' Ashes

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Deja vu: The slender Liberty rocket — towering at twice the height of the Statue of Liberty — isn’t dissimilar to the scrapped NASA Ares I crew launch vehicle. Image courtesy of ATK.

It is obvious that human spaceflight is at a crossroads, particularly for US space aspirations. As we quickly approach the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, and NASA’s premier plan to get the US astronauts back to the moon has been scrapped, an uneasy state of flux has befallen the US space agency.

But private enterprise is looking toward the final frontier, hoping to continue where NASA left off by launching cargo to the International Space Station and astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. And on Tuesday, two established rocket manufacturers announced their intention to construct a rocket out of the ashes of the scrapped Constellation Program, melding seasoned components from NASA and European rocket technologies.

WIDE ANGLE: NASA’s Moon Mission Scrapped

Looking very similar to the Constellation Program’s Ares I crew launch vehicle — with a new, trendy paint-job (artist’s impression top) — the slender “Liberty” rocket will combine an Alliant Techsystems (ATK) solid rocket booster and Astrium’s Ariane 5 first stage booster.

The ATK component will be pretty much unchanged from the Ares I solid booster it had under development for NASA and the Ariane 5 component has been tried and tested dozens of times in satellite launches for the European market already.

In short, by stacking the two rockets, launch costs can be lowered, tech developed for the Constellation Program needn’t go to waste and the upper stage is already in operation.

Also, the ATK/Astrium partnership comes at the perfect time for President Obama’s new vision for NASA spaceflight: stimulating commercial space interests. $200 million in NASA seed money (the Commercial Crew Development-2 competition) is up for grabs and there’s no shortage of private firms competing for a share of the prize.

BIG PIC: The first and only launch of the Constellation Program: The Ares I-X Goes Transonic.

“The Liberty initiative provides tremendous value because it builds on European Ariane 5 launcher heritage, while allowing NASA to leverage the mature first stage,” said Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of ATK Space Launch Systems, in Tuesday’s press release. “We will provide unmatched payload performance at a fraction of the cost, and we will launch it from the Kennedy Space Center using facilities that have already been built. This approach allows NASA to utilize the investments that have already been made in our nation’s ground infrastructure and propulsion systems for the Space Exploration Program.”

How Liberty stacks up. Image courtesy of ATK.

Liberty is designed to lift 44,500 pounds (20,185 kilograms) which means it has the capability of launching any crewed vehicle that is currently in development.

“We can lift any potential crew vehicle out there, whether it’s a space plane or a capsule,” Kent Rominger, ATK’s Vice President of Advanced Programs, told Spaceflight Now. “We can lift Orion, for that matter.” (Orion is NASA’s next planned crewed capsule, but since the scrapping of Constellation it is most likely to have a very limited role.)

This is certainly an exciting development for commercial spaceflight, especially as many of the Liberty components are already in use.

ATK estimates the rocket system could make its maiden flight in 2015.

Sources: ATK, Spaceflight Now