Heavy-Lift Competitors Find Common Ground

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Officials with two U.S. companies that support competing solutions to NASA’s future heavy-lift launcher agree on one thing: building a brand-new vehicle based on advanced technology is not the way to go.

The U.S. government and industry have spent nearly $10 billion combined over the past 15 years on new launch vehicles and related technology , said Mark Albrecht, president of Lockheed Martin-affiliate International Launch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va. ILS markets the Lockheed Martin-built Atlas 5 rocket and the Russian Proton rocket.

Albrecht said the future requirements outlined in the U.S. Space Transportation Policy released earlier this year are no different from the requirements contained in the national space launch strategy released in 1991 . Industry has produced some successful new vehicles in response to these requirements, but spiral development, not a brand new start, is the best way to meet future needs , he said.

“From a launch vehicle and propulsion perspective, this is not an era of new technology and new concepts,” agreed Ronald Dittemore, president of ATK Thiokol of Brigham City, Utah, which builds the space shuttle solid-rocket boosters. “This is a time for an evolution of demonstrated, reliable technology. An evolution of what we have today will be key to the future,” he said. “I don’t see any technology breakthrough on the horizon that will make a difference in the decisions that need to be made today.”

Albrecht and Dittemore, who participated in a National Space Symposium launch-vehicle panel discussion here April 5, have different perspectives on NASA’s heavy-lift needs. Albrecht believes the job can be done with a derivative of the Atlas 5, developed under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Dittemore, not surprisingly, believes a vehicle based on the space shuttle boosters is the best option.

Boeing, whose Delta 4 rocket also was developed under the EELV program, did not have a representative on the panel.

“There’s no reason to think it (a heavy-lift launcher) wouldn’t follow the pattern of previous Atlas versions,” Albrecht said, noting the recent successful track record of the Atlas family. “It will cost some, but we have a pathway to go from the current configuration to a heavy configuration.”

Albrecht has the support of the U.S. Space Transportation Policy, which favors the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 for future U.S. government heavy-lift launch needs.

Dittemore offered a different point of view. “When you are talking about moving from a large propulsion capability like shuttle and substituting an orbiter with a relatively simple cargo carrier, I don’t think it’s that complex or all that expensive,” he said.

A shuttle-derived vehicle also would have the advantage of already being human-rated, Dittemore said.

“I don’t like to make the case against EELV, but an EELV is not a human-rated carrier,” Dittemore said. “It does fine with cargo, but it’s not inexpensive to go back and human rate an existing launch vehicle. If you think that is simple, go back and research what it takes to human rate a vehicle.”