WASHINGTON — Alliant Techsystems (ATK), one of at least four companies competing to become NASA’s post-shuttle crew-transport provider, said recently completed tank structure tests showed that modifications to the Ariane 5-derived cryogenic upper stage it plans to use for its Liberty launcher can be completed in time to begin test flights in 2014.

ATK’s Promontory, Utah-based space launch division aims to conduct an unmanned test launch of Liberty in 2014 followed by the rocket’s first crewed launch in 2015 — a development schedule the company said will keep it on track to meet NASA’s goal of buying privately operated astronaut flights to the international space station by 2017.

ATK’s Liberty system comprises a rocket of the same name and a composite crew capsule modeled after the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that Lockheed Martin Space Systems is building for NASA. The rocket’s core stage will be a five-segment solid motor developed by ATK for NASA’s canceled Ares 1 crew launcher. Liberty’s second stage is a modified Ariane 5 cryogenic main stage powered by a Vulcain 2 engine built by Paris-based Safran’s Snecma rocket-motor division.

Ariane 5 is built for launch operator Arianespace of Evry, France, by a consortium lead by Astrium Space Transportation. As Europe’s workhorse rocket, Ariane 5 flew five times in 2011 and is expected to fly seven times in 2012. ATK has said Ariane 5’s launch volume will allow it to buy stages relatively cheaply. However, some modifications are needed so that the cryogenic stage can ride safely atop ATK’s solid booster.

Astrium “has successfully completed a set of tests on tank structures proving that key design and manufacturing processes used for Ariane launchers are ready for production of the Liberty commercial launch vehicle second stage,” ATK wrote in a June 28 press release. “The tests covering load-carrying cryogenic tanks demonstrate that existing Astrium processes can be leveraged to confirm the overall Liberty schedule.”

The Liberty rocket’s maiden flight, an uncrewed test, is scheduled for 2014. A crewed test flight is on the slate for 2015. Both would launch from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ATK spokesman George Torres said.

ATK also said June 28 it picked NanoRacks of Houston as a marketing agent for both crewed and uncrewed Liberty flights. NanoRacks, a 3-year-old company that makes standardized containers and science equipment designed for “plug-and-play” functionality, already has some of its lab equipment installed onboard the international space station.

“This teaming agreement allows NanoRacks to market to explorers from around the globe a Liberty mission consisting of transportation into low Earth orbit, on-orbit operations and a safe return to Earth for up to seven people and their research and/or equipment,” ATK said in a press release.

ATK, along with Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is competing for an award under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program. All of these companies have said they can fly a crewed demonstration flight later this decade if NASA funds their proposals.

CCiCap is the third phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the agency’s effort to spur development of privately operated astronaut taxis that could end U.S. dependence on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. NASA now pays $60 million a seat to get its astronauts to and from the international space station aboard Soyuz capsules.

CCiCap Awards are expected in mid-July. Two companies could get funded Space Act Agreements worth $300 million to $500 million annually over a 21-month performance period. A third company could get an award worth half as much, per a compromise reached in early June between the agency and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice science subcommittee. CCiCap is designed to get at least two competing designs ready to enter production.

NASA wants to begin privately operated astronaut flights by 2017, but the agency says that will not happen unless Congress increases the Commercial Crew Program’s annual funding by hundreds of millions of dollars beginning in 2014. The program got $406 million in 2012. Congress is poised to increase that to $525 million for 2013. NASA and the White House have said they need upward of $800 million a year to make the program work.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.