Will Boeing Choose Atlas V or Liberty to Launch CST-100?


Six months ago, I would have predicted that ULA would win this in a walk with the Atlas V over ATK’s Liberty rocket. Atlas V has a flawless flight history, can be human rated, and is relatively inexpensive as rockets go.

However, I’m not quite so sure now. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Boeing chose Liberty.

That idea probably sounds crazy to many of my NewSpace friends. But, I think that ATK’s booster has been underrated since it was announced six months ago. The rocket has a number of strengths that have been largely overlooked, and it is being taken seriously by both NASA and Boeing.

When ATK and Astrium unveiled Liberty in February, the rocket was largely dismissed as a desperate attempt to revive NASA’s canceled (and much reviled) Ares I booster by a company desperate to avoid massive layoffs. The vehicle’s odd shape — a five-segment solid rocket booster first stage topped with the first stage of the Ariane 5 — quickly earned it the derisive moniker “corndog” after the deep fried hot dogs on a stick that are sold in malls across America.

The fact that ATK — not known for competing on price — was billing this as a commercial rocket made the whole venture seem even more foolhardy to critics. Surely, the booster would survive only long enough to be rejected for CCDev funding, at which point it would quietly fade away, notwithstanding ATK’s claims that it would develop Liberty with or without NASA funding.

But, a funny thing happened to the rocket on the way to becoming a footnote in the annals of rocketry. NASA invited ATK down to Houston to discuss its proposal for CCDev 2 funding further. That might be explained away as the space agency covering its ass by giving due consideration to a contractor favored by powerful members of Congress. But, there may have been more to it than that.

The CCDev 2 Selection Statement included some surprising findings: Liberty scored very high in the CCDev 2 evaluation on both technical and business criteria. In fact, the rocket outscored ULA’s Atlas V, which NASA had already funded.

Company

Project

CCDev 2 Technical Approach Rating

CCDev2 Business Information Rating

CCDev 1 Awards

CCDev 2 Awards

Total CCDev Awards
ATK Aerospace Systems

Liberty rocket

Did not compete

$0

$0

United Launch Alliance

Human-rating technology for Atlas V and Delta IV rockets


$6.7 million

$0

$6.7 million

TOTAL:

$6.7 million
Ratings Key
Very High Level of Confidence
High Level of Confidence
Moderate Level of Confidence
Low Level of Confidence
Very Low Level of Confidence

ATK’s proposal rated higher on both Technical Approach and Business Information, receiving the second highest rating (Green – High Level of Confidence) possible on NASA’s color-coded rating system. ULA, which had received $6.7 million to develop its system under CCDev 1, received White ratings (Moderate Level of Confidence) in both categories.

Ultimately, NASA decided to fund spacecraft development only for CCDev 2. This was a big break for ATK, which would have time to resolve the outstanding technical and business concerns about Liberty. The next round of CCDev funding will not be awarded until the middle of 2012.

One of the biggest problems with the proposal was that none of the CCDev competitors had agreed to fly on Liberty. As Philip McAlister, acting director of Commercial Spaceflight Development for NASA, explained in his Selection Statement:

This was a significant concern on my part, as NASA could fund the Liberty all the way through the development phase and there would be the possibility that no spacecraft developer would select that launch vehicle as part of its CTS design, thereby not advancing an orbital CTS concept which was the key goal of the Announcement.

ATK set about solving that concern by courting Boeing, the most experienced team in the CCDev competition. Now, it made plenty of business sense for Boeing to negotiate with several potential vendors. Boeing is also designing the CST-100 to be booster neutral, i.e., it could fly on a number of rockets. Liberty also had enough margin to accommodate any weight in the seven-person CST-100 vehicle.

Another problem ATK had to overcome was high cost.The SRBs are not cheap, and there are serious doubts about whether they and the Ariane 5 first stage can be produced at low enough costs to make Liberty a truly competitive commercial rocket.

I talked to an ATK engineer during the International Space Development Conference in Huntsville back in May. He said that the company would be able to produce the Liberty at a cost significantly below what ULA was offering for the Atlas V. If I recall, he was talking about a price that was about $50 million lower. The upgraded boosters that had been developed under Ares I would be cheaper because they incorporated changes that NASA had not allowed to be used on the shuttle version.

He also pointed to the human ratings for both the first stage (developed to carry astronauts on the Orion spacecraft) and the second stage (designed for Europe’s canceled Hermes space shuttle). The Atlas V booster — which has proven highly reliable for satellite launches — will require human rating work to carry astronauts.

The infrastructure to support Liberty launch operations is already in place from the space shuttle program. The Atlas V, by contrast, would require infrastructure improvements because existing launch pads are not designed for astronaut ingress and egress.

I’m not sure what Boeing is going to announce tomorrow. But, if they do pick Liberty, it’s going to shock many people and shake up the CCDev booster competition. The canceled Ares I will have risen improbably from dead, albeit in a very different configuration.

This could have a major impact on NASA’s plans for the shuttle-derived Space Launch System, which will likely use ATK’s SRBs. If the company can really produce the SRBs at a much lower cost, and the economies of scale associated with Liberty drive unit costs down even further, perhaps the heavy-lift vehicle becomes more affordable.

There’s also the intriguing question of why NASA has taken so long to announce its decision about SLS. Could it have been waiting to see what Boeing selected? How would such a selection affect financial and programmatic decisions that NASA must make?

It will be very interesting to see what Boeing announces tomorrow.

  • You’re right Doug, this does sound crazy! I wonder what changes they made that NASA did not allow them to make? Maybe a simpler ignition system (since the Shuttle really can’t risk one booster going off without the other, but Ares I/Liberty would be fine)?

    It would also be surprising if Boeing selected Liberty on the simple grounds that it owns 50% of ULA. We’ll see what the future brings…

  • I was surprised they were considering Liberty given their half ownership in ULA. But, stranger things have happened.

    As for the changes, I don’t remember precisely. But, my sense of the conversation was that NASA was very reluctant to introduce any significant changes to the SRBs after the O-ring design flaw was fixed post Challenger.

    And that design worked without incident on 109 missions over the past 25 years. Since the beginning of shuttle, they had 270 SRBs in 135 shuttle flights fired with one failure. A tragic failure, sadly. But, statistically, that’s a highly reliable rocket with a lot of flights to understand its performance.

    The cost has been an issue. And the vibrations associated with using a solid-rocket booster. ATK thinks it has both of those problems fixed, so why not use the Liberty? Especially since it has a highly reliable Ariane 5 stage on top.

    With Constellation, the SRB is extended by an additional segment to five. And there’s been a lot of money spent on it, including a number of ground tests. There’s another ground test set for next month, actually. I think the flight experience has given them a sufficient understanding to introduce changes without endangering reliability.

  • Russell Stein

    For two years, those of us lobbying hard for letting NASA complete Ares I / Orion — and now for having the agency choose the ATK/Astrium Liberty launcher as its commercial crew rocket — have seen the SRB / big stick approach as the simplest, safest, soonest, most robust and most affordable way of launching U.S. astronauts to the ISS and LEO in a post-shuttle world.

    It is also the only way for the country to leverage the billions of taxpayer dollars invested in Constellation R&D and infrastructure. The way to obtain a capsule you can trust and a booster you can trust to launch on need any time over the next generation — an American Soyuz, if you will. The logical way to technically support eventual NASA development of a heavy lifter. And the only sure way to keep thousands of skilled Americans at work here in Florida and all across the country.

    “Old space.” “New space.” Phooey! Keep flying. Go with what you know. Advance steadily and incrementally (don’t overreach and get defunded). Learn by doing and always do the next logical thing. Hone your spaceflight skills, maintain your launch infrastructure, keep the lights on at KSC, and take advantage of matchless Complex 39… So that when the world decides what it wants to do in space after ISS (presumably an Antarctica-style, multinational, permanent return to the Moon for science and deep space colonization skills), the U.S. can play a central role, instead of finding itself on the outside looking in.

    In terms of re-starting, restoring and again enjoying the societal benefits of a vital and exciting American human spaceflight program during our lifetimes, the choice is clear: “Give us Liberty or give us death!”

  • The glaringly obvious problem here is that the Liberty rocket has not flown yet. Now, I know nobody has mentioned Falcon 9, but I’m throwing it in for comparison, as it’s also meant to be man-rated, is one of the front-runners in CCDev 2, and Boeing has neat illustrations of CST-100 riding atop Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9.

    So, Atlas V and Falcon 9 have both flown, both with perfect launch records (though SpaceX has only flown Falcon 9 twice). The Liberty rocket is just a bunch of spare parts at the moment. Sure, Liberty could be ready by the time CST-100 is finished, but what if it’s not? Would it be fully tested, like Atlas V is already and Falcon 9 will be by that time?

    Further, if we’re talking about weight, Liberty is in an entirely different class. If it’s anything like Ares I, Orion was a much larger capsule than CST-100. NASA might favor this sort of thing since they’re going to need something to launch the MPCV on, but with something this large, you’re really paying for too much rocket. Unless they can come up with some creative mission planning to launch additional payloads underneath the capsule, I just don’t see this happening.

    It’s a risk, it’s a gamble, and if Boeing’s smart, they’re not going to fall for the same romantic notions that doomed Constellation.

  • Russell Stein

    Don’t disagree with you, Alex. However, the Boeing decision demonstrates what’s fundamentally wrong with total commercialization/privatization of U.S. human space exploration. Boeing made it’s decision for economic reasons: it’s a fifty percent owner of ULA! For every dollar it pays ULA it essentially gets fifty cents back. A 50% discount !! It didn’t figure in the billions of dollars in benefits NASA, the U.S. space program and U.S. taxpayers reap by going with Liberty. Nor could it. (Indeed, were I a Boeing shareholder I would have sued them for ANY non – ULA choice they made.)

    The sad truth that laissez-faire capitalists and government-hating Tea Party types ignore is that the interests of private corporations and the American people as a whole rarely, if ever, coincide. To create a system where the private sector not only does 80-90 percent of the work on U.S. human space (as has long been the case), but also makes all the key policy decision, based on narrow, short-term economic analysis, is foolhardy at best and catastrophic at worst…

  • gaetano marano

    .
    the CST-100 looks bigger and better than all other commercial-space spacecrafts and Boeing has surely hundreds times more experience in the design of manned vehicles and space hardware, thousands of engineers and huge own funds, than Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Blue Origin TOGETHER
    .
    so, if Boeing will respect the expected (low) costs, specs and launch schedule, the (reusable) CST-100 could be the ONLY commercial crew-vehicle really used by NASA as Soyuz/Shuttle replacement and the “KILLER” of the Dreamchaser, Dragon and Blue Kliper, in (both) the government funded and space-tourists markets
    .
    ghostnasa.com/posts2/075endofnasa.html
    .

  • gaetano marano

    .
    there are NO comparisons (nor there will be in the near future) between the Atlas V safety, reliability and successful launch record vs. the Falcon-9
    .
    also, I have many doubts (and I’m not the only) that a TEN engines rocket like the Falcon-9 can ever be man-rated while the Atlas V has only three engines (a twin nozzle one for the first stage and a single engine for the second stage)
    .
    not only, but, the Atlas V engines have also an excellent reliability and very long successful launch records, by themselves, since used in other russian rockets (the first stage engine) and in other american rockets, the second stage engine
    .
    so, there will be NO story in the Dragon/Falcon-9 vs. CST-100/AtlasV competition, since, the latter, will be the clear winners
    .