Ron Dittemore

President, AlliantTechSystems Launch Systems Group


on Dittemore understands perhaps better than anyone the strengths and limitations of the U.S. space shuttle. As the NASA space shuttle program manager on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, Dittemore watched helplessly as Columbia broke apart during re-entry. It was the second time in his 26 years at NASA that an orbiter and her crew did not make it home.

Today, Dittemore is president of AlliantTechSystems (ATK) Launch Systems Group. The Brigham City, Utah-based company not only makes the solid-rocket boosters that have to perform flawlessly on each of the shuttle’s remaining flights, it also is busy working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to develop the main stage of the shuttle’s successor, the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle.

Work on Ares 1’s five-segment solid-rocket booster core already is under way. Dittemore said the design is coming along and tooling is starting to be put in place in order to produce one of the big boosters in time for a static fire test slated for April 2009. On tap for the same month is a flight test known as Ares 1-X. Using a smaller shuttle-grade booster with a spacer on top standing in for the fifth segment, the vehicle will launch an inert upper stage and dummy Orion capsule to suborbital heights to evaluate the booster’s thrust and roll control.

Meanwhile, ATK is competing to build the Ares 1’s liquid-fueled upper stage. With NASA due to select an industrial partner in August to produce the upper stage at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, ATK and teammates Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne are hoping to knock off lone opponent Boeing for the win.

During a recent trip to Washington, Dittemore talked with Space News staff writer Brian Berger about ATK’s current and future launch business prospects.

By the end of 2008, your teammate Lockheed Martin will no longer operate NASA’s Michoud facility. Did that affect your bid for the Ares 1 upper-stage production contract?

No. This was not a surprise to Lockheed or to us. More importantly, Lockheed will still have a work force there producing external tanks for the space shuttle program and that’s a real benefit in terms of making a smooth transition from one program to the next. The two projects are very similar.

How soon would Michoud actually be engaged in building the upper stage?

The design is pressing right along, so within the first year you’re going to see the tooling going in and the hardware starting to move through in order to meet the early milestones for test articles and test flights. This is going to be an aggressive ramp up, which takes further advantage of the existing work force there.

Is the uncertainty over the future of the Delta 2 rocket having any impact on ATK?

We just completed the last production run of solid-rocket motor strap-on boosters for the Delta 2 and currently have no further orders from United Launch Alliance (ULA) for the hardware and don’t anticipate any in the near term. ULA has an inventory of our motors that will last them some time into the future. The Delta 2 strap-on boosters are just one of the strap-on booster motors we produce. We could restart production fairly quickly if called upon.

What about developing a cheaper alternative to Delta 2 for NASA?

We are just in the early stages of trying to understand what alternate solutions there might be should Delta 2 no longer be a launch vehicle for the future. We certainly want to continue our support of ULA and Delta 2. At the same time, we are serving as the prime contractor for RocketplaneKistler’s K-1, which can handle payloads in the Delta 2 class.

Beyond that, we are pursuing a small launch vehicle in the 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) payload class as part of the natural evolution beyond our propulsion manufacturing base to provide more and more of the launch vehicle. Not that we think the market is going to make this huge turnaround. But we believe it is important to get this experience to allow us more opportunities in the future, whether it is teaming with someone to be a Delta 2-class provider or something else.

Is ATK giving RocketplaneKistler financial help while it tries to raise the $500 million it needs to finish the K-1?

Not beyond the $2 million in cash we promised as part of our original commitment. Over the last several months, our contributions have been in-kind contributions. But right now we’re going through a quiet period waiting for

RocketplaneKistler to get through its financing phase. Once that happens, work will pick up.

Doesn’t NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program threaten the Ares 1 flight rate and thus ATK revenue?

I see COTS and Ares 1 as complementary. COTS’ role is lower-cost cargo transportation. It remains to be seen whether COTS will ever make the transition to human space transportation.

So you don’t think the K-1 can launch humans, even though that is part of your partner’s plan?

I didn’t say it couldn’t be done. I’m saying it’s hard. And I think the point to be made is that the first step is getting a launch vehicle that gets cargo to low Earth orbit. It’s a little early in the game to be talking about carrying humans before we’ve done the cargo demonstration.

Does ATK foresee missions for Ares 1 beyond launching Orion?

Broadly speaking, Ares 1 gives the government a new tool in its quiver. It is a lot less complex, in both assembly and in operation, than the space shuttle and will cost less to operate. As such, there are opportunities to broaden its role. Right now its sole role is to meet NASA requirements for delivering cargo and humans to low Earth orbit. But I know NASA has at least started exploring some opportunities for Ares 1 on the commercial or even the defense side. But I’m just repeating to you what NASA has said.

What class of missions are a good fit for the Ares 1’s cost and performance?

Clearly it is a heavy lift launcher, complementing the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 at the upper ends.

The Ares 1, because it’s being designed to carry humans, is going to be an extremely reliable launch vehicle. And generally speaking, spacecraft at the heavy end of the spectrum demand a highly reliable launch vehicle. So there could be a good fit.

Does ATK see itself operating Ares 1 as a commercial launcher?

A lot of water has to go under the bridge before we get to the point where industry is operating a launch vehicle like Ares 1. Our entire focus right now is on making Ares 1 a reality, not the longer-term vision for the rocket, which may be more speculation than reality.

Are there any new opportunities out there for ATK Launch Systems Group?

Looking into the future, we don’t see big new monolithic programs starting up on the defense side. So we believe it makes sense to take the motors we have in production today and adapt them with minimal non-recurring costs to meet the needs of the future, from the next generation intercontinental ballistic missile, to operationally responsive space and prompt global strike capability.

With perhaps only five different motors, we can meet all those needs while keeping costs down and development schedules short. It’s something we’ve been talking to U.S. Strategic Command about.