Taking Liberty

ATK, the company that made the strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the space shuttles, has an idea. If, as the Obama administration suggests, the future in space belongs to private companies launching astronauts, they'll need rockets to get up there.

So why not use what already exists? ATK announced today it would propose to build a 300-foot-tall rocket called Liberty, using shuttle SRBs for its first stage, and the core of Europe's Ariane 5 launcher as its second stage. Both have flown, a lot, and while they might not be as fuel-efficient as some newer designs, ATK says it would be cheaper and faster to get the project started. It could even make use of Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center -- the same pads used for the shuttles and the Saturn V moon rockets, starting in 1967. The rocket would be able to lift 44,500 pounds to the International Space Station, and the first test flight could be in 2013. It is essentially NASA's now-cancelled Ares 1 rocket, except that Ares was going to have a newly-designed upper stage. Liberty won't even have that, saving extra money. ATK clearly hopes to compete with other major aerospace companies, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which together are offering their existing Atlas V rockets to space startups. New is often better, but new is also risky. There might be better materials and fuels in the future, but startup costs are high, and so are the chances of failure. “Together we combine unique flight-proven systems and commercial experience that allows us to offer the market’s most capable launch vehicle along with flexibility to meet a wide variety of emerging needs," ATK Aerospace Systems Group President Blake Larson said in a press statement. "Liberty provides greater performance at less cost than any other comparable launch vehicle.”

(Image: Artist's conception of Liberty rocket on mobile launch platform. Courtesy ATK. Click to enlarge.)

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