WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance (ULA) will support NASA efforts to assess the company’s Atlas 5 rocket as a launcher for commercially built astronaut transportation systems under a partnership agreement announced July 18.

Under the agreement, ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, and NASA “can work together to figure out if and exactly how we’re going to use an Atlas 5 to fly crew to” low Earth orbit, Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said. He spoke during a July 18 conference call from ULA’s Centennial, Colo., headquarters.

In a best-case scenario, the Atlas 5 could be launching crews in “three to four years,” George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of business development, said during the call. He said his timetable assumes that NASA’s Commercial Crew program receives adequate funding, and that the spacecraft now in development as part of that effort are completed in time.

ULA and NASA characterized their partnership as an unfunded Space Act Agreement, meaning no money will change hands over its six- to nine-month duration.

Instead, NASA and ULA will share personnel, infrastructure and information to determine whether Atlas 5 could be part of a NASA-certified transportation system that ferries astronauts to and from the international space station on a commercial basis.

The company and the agency will foot the bill for their respective contributions to the project. On the NASA side, that would include about 30 engineers, four or five of whom would work full-time on the Atlas 5 evaluation, Mango said.

NASA will not certify the Atlas 5 itself for passengers. Rather, the agency will certify a crew-transportation system comprising a launch vehicle and a spacecraft. Several crew-carrying spacecraft are being designed by NASA’s Commercial Crew partners, including Boeing Co., Chicago; Space Exploration Technologies, Hawthorne, Calif.; Sierra Nevada Corp., Sparks, Nev.; and Blue Origin, Kent, Wash.

“In the end … the certification that NASA’s requiring is of a complete system,” not individually certified rockets and crew vehicles, Mango said.

NASA has human-rating requirements for government-owned vehicles, and these form the basis of the agency’s draft rules for certifying commercial crew taxis.

Mango said the agency will baseline its commercial human-rating requirements — that is, move them out of the draft phase — at the end of the year. Between now and then, NASA will continue to collect feedback about those requirements from its commercial partners. Mango said NASA has met with industry several times over the last six months for this purpose.

“We will do that one more time here in the fall, and after that, we will go ahead and baseline our requirements,” Mango said.

ULA was not among the companies that in April were awarded NASA funding under a second round of contracts designed to nurture development of privately operated astronaut transportation services. The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev 2) awards went to companies designing crew-carrying spacecraft rather than rockets.

Boeing Co., which won $92.3 million in CCDev 2 funding, is working on the CST-100 capsule that could be used to bring astronauts to the international space station, and to fly fee-paying tourists into space. Other recipients of CCDev 2 funding are Sierra Nevada Corp., which received $80 million to continue developing its seven-person Dream Chaser space plane; Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which received $75 million for work on a crew-carrying version of its Dragon cargo capsule; and Blue Origin, which received $22 million.

Neither Boeing nor Sierra Nevada has officially selected a launch vehicle for its proposed astronaut taxi. The Atlas 5 along with ULA’s Delta 4 rocket could be used for both vehicles, although NASA has yet to order a Delta 4 for any purpose. Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket, which has two successful launches under its belt, would launch the company’s Dragon variant and also could loft Boeing’s CST-100.

In 2009, ULA got $6.7 million under NASA’s CCDev 1 program from funding made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. According to industry sources, ULA used those funds to design an Emergency Detection System, a safety feature “that would detect the imminent failure of the launch vehicle and send the signal to allow the crew to abort,” Sowers said.

The Emergency Detection System is considered necessary before the Atlas 5 can be used to launch astronauts.

Sowers said the remaining impediments to making the Atlas 5 a passenger-carrying rocket “are pretty minimal.”



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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.