After the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, it was clear to NASA chief astronaut Kent Rominger and his colleagues that the shuttle’s days were numbered. Some wanted to retire the ships immediately. Others lobbied for a fix. But all agreed it was time to get to work on a new system.

Out of that, the Ares rocket was born. It didn’t last long as a government program, but that didn’t mean it was gone. Rominger, now a vice president with Alliant Techsystems (ATK), is leading the charge for a new human space transportation system built on not just the Ares launcher but also a NASA-developed prototype Orion capsule and a European second-stage rocket motor originally designed to launch the Hermes spaceplane. With these packaged together in a program called Liberty, ATK is among the contenders for the next phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Rominger recently spoke with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

What do you think about Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) Dragon demo flight?

A private company doing what SpaceX has done is very impressive. And when you look at what we’re doing with Liberty, we’re really trying to do the same thing. If you boil it down to the differences, with ATK and our partners — Astrium and Lockheed Martin — we’re very experienced. We’re more what’s referred to as “old space.” Now, given a different set of rules, a commercial set of rules, how well does “old space” compete with SpaceX, which is kind of leading the charge in “new space?” I think that’s really what it boils down to.

We have transitioned. We’re turning over the space station to-and-from transportation and low Earth orbit missions to industry, rather than the classic NASA way, so we have to do it well. Even folks who thought that maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do initially, at this point that’s irrelevant.

With Liberty we have a whole different set of rules than we’ve had under traditional government cost-plus contracts and it’s very exciting to see what we can do. I believe Liberty will be very, very competitive.

Liberty draws on heritage components, such as the solid-rocket boosters ATK built for the space shuttle. What drove you to the choice of the composite prototype Orion capsule?

The composite pressure shell started as a research project back in 2007. NASA’s Langley Research Center led the charge. We were part of that industry team. We continued to work on it and there’s a test article that’s still going through testing to date at Marshall Space Flight Center, and it’s proven out. Composites are absolutely the way of the future and that’s our core competency at ATK. We built this test article. We have a 55,000-square-meter facility in Utah we just stood up as a composite center for the Airbus work that we do. We also do the F-35 military composites, so it just makes sense.

Our philosophy is to give the taxpayers the best value for the dollar. We want to minimize all development costs, because development can be expensive, particularly when you want a human-rated system. The requirements, the certification procedures for a human-rated system can be very, very expensive. And they need to be very thorough, is the bottom line.

Will work on Liberty capsule feed back into NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle program?

That will be interesting to see because there are definitely synergies. I’m leveraging billions of dollars of work, but at some point my systems will change and I may be in the lead. My life-support system, for example, I probably will need before NASA needs theirs. The difference is my life-support system only needs to go to low Earth orbit. It doesn’t need to do a deep-space mission. So we have a little bit different missions that drive those systems.

How much do you intend to parallel efforts with NASA’s Space Launch System-Orion program?

Synergy is big for both NASA and Liberty. Either one alone will pay more than if we combine our efforts. When I look at the heat shield, for example, the design for NASA has to be more capable than what I need coming in from low Earth orbit. But when I look at the trades, it looks like the amount of weight I save from making it a little thinner isn’t worth the development and certification costs, so I’m just going to go with the more capable heat shield. Our idea is to take advantage of every system out there that’s been developed for humans.

Are there any intellectual property issues with the use of the Orion prototype capsule?

It’s public domain. My whole rocket is. When commercial space was rolled out, NASA basically said, “OK, industry, we’re turning over low Earth orbit to you, but you’re not on your own. Everything we have done for the last 50 years is available to you.” So, everything I’m doing with the first stage, SpaceX has the same rights to that intellectual property. Everything I’m doing with the capsule, working with Lockheed, they have the same rights. All the government hardware that we’re using and the design, it’s available to whoever would like it.

The one thing about this capsule is it’s heavy and that’s one reason there weren’t people knocking NASA down for this design. Most launchers can’t lift it.

What’s the lift capacity of Liberty compared with Falcon 9?

We’re about twice that right now. A Delta 2 was about 3,600 to 6,300 kilograms. An Atlas 5 has a wide variance as well, but probably starts at about 9,000 kilograms and winds up around 16,000 kilograms or so. Liberty can lift about 20,000 kilograms, about what a Delta 4 Heavy can put into  low Earth orbit. It’s maybe a little bit more.

How does Liberty compare cost-wise?

It’s kind of interesting. A Liberty rocket can do about what a Delta 4 Heavy can do for about half the price. If you stand back and look at the two rockets, you’ll see ours is very simple. It’s one first stage, one second stage. The Delta 4 Heavy effectively has three core stages for lifting off, so there’s a lot more hardware on it, and then it has its second stage. But the truth is the vehicles were designed for totally different missions. The Delta 4 Heavy is a way better rocket for satellites and it does that very well. Liberty was designed to take humans to space station and my design does that better than any other design I’ve seen.

Can Liberty be evolved to take people and cargo beyond station orbit?

It is not being designed that way to date.

Yes, but you said the rocket is evolvable. If Liberty is selected to become a station taxi, what would need to be done to have it go beyond?

The missions I really want to target are the satellites, so I would need a third-stage, which is not in my initial plan, and I need a West Coast launch site. Those are down the road because both of those take development money and time.

Would you continue on Liberty design whether or not you’re selected for NASA funding in the next round of Commercial Crew?

ATK is absolutely committed to Liberty. The schedule I can meet is much, much better with the NASA award. The money is one thing, but as important is NASA saying, “We like that system enough to invest in it.” That’s huge. Whom NASA picks is very important in industry. It’s kind of like Consumer Reports magazine saying, “Hey, here are the ones.” NASA, they’re the experts, so who they choose is very important.

If we don’t get an award, we’ll continue at the level of funding we are today, which is a modest level. With the NASA award, then we step up big, because that’s all part of our business case.

Do you feel the Liberty system is at a disadvantage because it wasn’t selected for a funded Space Act Agreement?

Particularly in the second round what became evident is that NASA didn’t pick any launch vehicles, and what we came in with was a launch vehicle. We came out with the highest ratings of any launch vehicle in that round, but NASA came back and said they really wanted to concentrate their efforts on the spacecraft because the spacecraft have a longer way to go. It was a mixed emotion. Disappointed that we didn’t get an award? Yes. When I read the debrief, I said, “Wow. NASA loved Liberty.” NASA ranked us the highest launch vehicle, high level of confidence in our business plan and our launch vehicle.

How much is your business plan dependent on NASA?

Initially that is the business case. Without NASA we don’t go. NASA is coming up with the development dollars and they are the legitimate business in the first five years for humans. The other ones, I haven’t seen other stations developed to the point where I would invest the kind of money I’m going to if it weren’t for NASA.

Whom do you consider your closest competitor?

It’s an impressive field. All of my colleagues and friends are involved. We all care about the same thing. If you really stand back and look, SpaceX and Liberty are two that both have the entire stack. The rocket tip-to-tail is ours, so that gives us a business case that’s robust because it’s not just crew, it’s not just cargo, it’s not just satellites. It’s the combination of all three. I think that distinguishes us from the field. If you’re really looking at who’s going to be there over the long haul, who has the most control over the business case, it’s the folks who have control over the entire system, from a business point of view.

The other thing is my system was designed to carry humans, with the reliability to meet that kind of safety requirement. I think that is a discriminator for Liberty.