Atlas V Becomes Baseline for Multiple Commercial Crew Projects

What is old is new again in the American space program.

The possibility that United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V booster will be sending Americans into space within a few years increased significantly this week as bids were submitted for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Atlas V is a descendant of the rocket that sent the first American, John Glenn, into orbit around the Earth in 1962.

Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation has proposed building a new lifting-body spacecraft that would launch aboard the Atlas V. The rocket is also the baseline booster for Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser shuttle, which are also in the running for crew missions. Both OSC and Boeing have said they are designing their vehicles to launch on other rockets as well.

NASA will fund multiple options when it awards CCDev contracts in March. The space agency wants redundant access to orbit that would use a combination of different boosters and spacecraft to get crews into orbit. That goal is shared by Bigelow Aerospace, which is a partner with Boeing on the CST-100 capsule. Bigelow plans to launch a series of commercial space stations into orbit beginning in 2014-15. It will eventually need more than 20 launches annually to support its facilities.

The selection of Atlas V would mean a lot of work for ULA’s assembly facility in Decatur, Ala., where 680 employees do the final assembly on the rocket. The company also builds the Delta IV rocket, a more powerful and expensive that is also a potential candidate for human missions. ULA’s main competitor for CCDev funding on the rocket side is SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which successfully lofted a Dragon spacecraft into orbit last week.