Seeking to preserve a program that has been its biggest revenue producer for some 25 years, ATK Thiokol is pitching the giant solid-rocket boosters it builds for NASA’s space shuttle as the basis for a launch system that would send astronauts on their way both to the international space station and the Moon.

Ron Dittemore, president of ATK Thiokol of Brigham City, Utah, says NASA could kill two birds with one stone by developing a shuttle-derived vehicle to loft the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that NASA hopes to replace the space shuttle with around 2010. The CEV initially will be used to transport astronauts to and from the international space station, and eventually will serve the same purpose when the Moon becomes NASA’s destination sometime between 2014 and 2020.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has made abundantly clear that a shuttle-derived vehicle, with its ability to carry more than 100 metric tons of payload into Earth orbit, is his preferred solution for getting the CEV and associated hardware to the Moon. “NASA already owns a heavy-lift launch vehicle,” Griffin said at a recent conference here, referring to the powerful combination of solid rocket boosters and space shuttle main engines that together lift the 100-ton shuttle orbiter into space.

But launching the 25- to 30-ton CEV to the international space station does not require nearly as much power. For that mission, Griffin has not publicly expressed a preference for a shuttle-derived vehicle over the alternative: an upgraded version of Boeing’s Delta 4 or Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5. The Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets were developed under the U.S. Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

A NASA team led by recent agency hire Doug Stanley is looking into the launch-vehicle and other hardware needs for sending astronauts to the international space station in the post shuttle era and eventually to the Moon. The exploration systems architecture study team is expected to come out with recommendations in July.

One thing Griffin has said is that NASA likely will have to develop a new upper stage no matter which vehicle ultimately is selected to launch the CEV to the space station.

ATK’s proposed solution, known informally as the “single-stick” approach, entails using one space shuttle solid rocket booster outfitted with an upper stage. Dittemore said options include systems based on the space shuttle main engine and the J-2 engine that powered both the second and third stages of the giant Saturn 5 rocket of Apollo fame.

Both the space shuttle main engine and the J-2 were developed and built by Boeing Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power of Canoga Park, Calif.

Byron Wood, vice president of Rocketdyne, said development and testing of the J-2 continued until the late 1970s, and that J-2 hardware and designs were incorporated into the linear aerospike engines that Rocketdyne built and successfully tested for NASA in the late 1990s under the X-33 program.

Wood, who played a key role in developing the J-2, said both that engine and the space shuttle main engine are viable upper-stage options for a vehicle based on the Thiokol-built solid rocket boosters. He said neither would work as an upper-stage engine for the Atlas 5 or Delta 4.

Dittemore said he is not married to either the J-2 or the shuttle main engine, but noted that the J-2 can be stopped and restarted in flight — a key feature for missions that involve first sending the CEV into Earth orbit, and then on its way to the Moon. Some variant of the J-2, he said, could be used in conjunction with the solid rocket boosters for both space station and lunar missions.

“I am very excited about the prospect of the shuttle-derived system and I think it is the right answer,” Dittemore said. “They are extremely safe, they are very simple, which means the reliability is going to be very high, and I think we can produce them soon. Safe, simple and soon is the buzz word that I think carries the day.”

Dittemore would not say what Thiokol thinks it would cost to develop a solid rocket booster-based launch system, noting that NASA is conducting its own cost analysis of all the launch options on the table. “We do have our own estimates but we are going to keep a close hold on them at this time,” he said.

Dittemore, who managed the space shuttle program for NASA from 1999 until leaving the agency shortly after the Columbia accident in 2003, did say that he believes a shuttle-derived launcher would be a very cost-effective solution for NASA.

“People talk about the space shuttle as an aging and expensive asset. Most of the costs of the space shuttle program are driven by the orbiter,” he said. “Once you retire the orbiter, you retire the major part of the cost and the major part of the risks. The propulsion elements themselves are basically new every time you use them.”

Building solid rocket boosters for NASA is a big chunk of Thiokol’s $845 million in annual sales and goes a long way toward keeping the company’s 4,100 employees busy.