PARIS and WASHINGTON — The prime contractors for Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and the U.S. space shuttle’s solid-rocket boosters have agreed to design a rocket to carry crew and cargo into orbit in a bid to win a contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development-2 (CCDev-2) procurement, the two companies announced Feb. 8.

Under the agreement, whose technical and cost details have yet to be fully calculated, Les Mureaux, France-based Astrium Space Transportation would provide a derivative of the Ariane 5 main cryogenic stage to Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK), which would place the European stage atop an ATK-built five-segment solid-rocket first stage the company is currently developing and testing for NASA’s Ares 1 rocket.

The companies said they could field a vehicle, dubbed Liberty, quickly enough for a 2013 inaugural flight, with a second flight in 2014 followed by operational capability in 2015.

Charles Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK space launch systems, said ATK has spent the past year working on the Liberty proposal, an effort that seeks to cut back on development dollars while minimizing recurring costs.

“That obviously is easier said than done,” Precourt said in a Feb. 4 interview. “But the fact that this system has over 40 flights on the Ariane side, 215 of our boosters flown successfully on the shuttle system and the past work that NASA has done through exploration, it all ties together so nicely that the complementary nature of these systems started to make a lot of sense.”


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He declined to discuss Liberty’s projected development price tag, but said recurring costs would run on the order of $180 million per flight.

“We’re talking about a launch vehicle on the launch pad, ready for flight and ready for a payload,” Precourt said.

NASA plans to award up to $200 million in CCDev-2 study contracts this year to multiple competitors in an effort to jump-start development of new commercial space transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

Precourt said the ATK-Astrium proposal is to carry the entire Liberty launch system through to a critical design review under the 12-month CCDev-2 program.

Silvio Sandrone, vice president of business development at Astrium, said the first step in the collaboration will be a detailed study of the feasibility of placing the Ariane 5 main stage atop the ATK stage. One key difference for the Astrium-provided stage would be that in the Liberty configuration, it would be ignited in orbit, not on the ground as it is for Ariane 5 launches.

A second key development parameter will be to “human rate” the Ariane 5 stage so that it meets NASA’s safety criteria for transporting astronauts. While the initial Ariane 5 design was for a human-rated vehicle — Europe had envisioned its own space shuttle at the time — the current version would require several modifications to be deemed acceptable for human transport.

In a Feb. 8 interview, Sandrone said the political obstacles to the ATK-Astrium Liberty vehicle may be more difficult than the technical work. While the U.S. government regularly uses the Atlas 5 rocket, whose first-stage engine is Russian-built, the future NASA crew transport rocket will have “a higher visibility” and therefore non-U.S. content might generate opposition in the United States, he said.

Astrium, for its part, has informed the French space agency, the French arms-procurement agency and the 18-nation European Space Agency of its discussions with ATK and anticipates no difficulties in securing the requisite export licenses.

Sandrone said Astrium has not given detailed price estimates to ATK. Nonetheless, he said, the idea of using an existing rocket stage, with a reliable flight history and six- or seven-unit annual production run, should enable the ATK-Astrium team to propose prices that fit within NASA’s |requirements.

Precourt said the Liberty rocket, whose first stage is based closely on the Ares 1 first stage his company is building under NASA’s Constellation program, would be a less-capable and less-costly crew launcher. Ares 1, which has been marked for termination by the White House and NASA, was designed to carry crews bound for the international space station as well as for destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

“The mission for beyond low Earth orbit requires a number of different capabilities that we’re not planning on paying for from a commercial acquisitions standpoint because the mission doesn’t require it,” Precourt said. He added, however, that work on Liberty could feed into development of a shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher Congress has directed NASA to build.

“You’re leveraging facilities and infrastructure and systems that would be common to that effort as well, which obviously lowers the cost for the other system,” he said. “There’s a sharing there that makes sense.”

Precourt said Liberty also could compete against rockets currently in development under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to deliver cargo to the space station. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are on the hook to complete COTS hardware demonstrations this year before beginning routine resupply runs to the orbiting outpost under separate Commercial Resupply Services agreements.

“I think the capabilities will open up that avenue for us,” Precourt said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said Liberty would help create hundreds of jobs in his state and others while supporting development of the heavy-lift launch vehicle ordered in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act he helped draft.

“For more monetary savings, the upgraded space shuttle solid rocket that Liberty would use takes the stepping-stone approach sought by Nelson’s legislation to boost NASA’s future ‘heavy lift’ spacecraft beyond earth orbit for an eventual trip to Mars,” states a news release issued by Nelson’s office Feb. 8.