ATK Says It Can Build SLS Boosters Cheaper with Better Peformance

ATK employees at the company's Promontory, Utah facility prepare a segment of a qualification motor for NASA's Space Launch System for transport. (Credit: ATK)
ATK employees at the company’s Promontory, Utah facility prepare a segment of a qualification motor for NASA’s Space Launch System for transport. (Credit: ATK)

Arlington, Va., October 24, 2012 (ATK PR) – ATK (NYSE: ATK) has achieved a significant milestone in its NASA Research Announcement (NRA) Advanced Booster risk-reduction program for the Space Launch System (SLS) by successfully completing filament winding of a pathfinder Advanced Booster composite case. Ultimately, this Advanced Booster NRA effort will enable NASA and ATK to optimize a case design that will be stronger, yet more affordable than traditional steel cases. In turn, this will provide increased payload performance due to reduced weight inherent in composite materials.

“ATK’s risk-reduction efforts on this NRA will help NASA with technological development and performance upgrades in the future,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK’s Space Launch division. “It also ties to cost reductions we have made on the existing SLS boosters and advances in our commercial business.”

The pathfinder article is a 92-inch-diameter, 27-foot-long composite case. In order to achieve both the affordability and performance required of an Advanced Booster, ATK overcame unique challenges during case winding operations. ATK leveraged 45 years of composite case winding experience, its experienced workforce, and a modern fiber-placement tooling system to achieve success on its first attempt.

“Creating a composite case and developing advanced propellant for NASA’s advanced booster coincides with technological advances in our commercial rocket programs at ATK,” said Precourt.

ATK has manufactured more than 1,600 commercial solid rocket motors to date, many of which use composite cases and high-energy propellants, for a wide variety of launch vehicles including Delta II and Delta IV, as well as Orbital’s Pegasus®, Taurus®, Minotaur® and AntaresTM space launch vehicles. ATK first entered the commercial launch vehicle market in 1987 when it developed its first commercial composite motor, the GEM-40, which is still being used on the Delta II launch vehicle. ATK’s commercial product line includes GEM, CASTOR®, and Orion solid rocket motors.

The next step in the Advanced Booster NRA program is to continue development of high performance and low-cost propellants that meet the lofty payload and affordability goals of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). These propellants, many of which are also widely used in ATK commercial solid rocket motors, combined with the achievements made in composite case technology, will provide NASA several options for performance increases for the next generation Advanced Booster.

On the existing SLS boosters ATK’s Value Stream Mapping (VSM) process, which is a company-wide business practice, allowed the employees to identify inefficient processes, procedures and requirements to help reach the target condition. Through this process, ATK identified more than 400 changes and improvements, which NASA approved. These changes have reduced assembly time by approximately 46 percent, saving millions of dollars in projected costs for the SLS system.

ATK has 29 key suppliers for the NRA contract across 16 states: Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

ATK is an aerospace, defense, and commercial products company with operations in 21 states, Puerto Rico, and internationally. News and information can be found on the Internet at, on Facebook at, or on Twitter @ATK.

  • Brainard

    Are these people really this clueless? Are they that unaware of what is about to happen to them? I’ve seen a lot of self destructive behaviors in my time but the performance of the American electorate and their representatives on this and other national issues has been nothing less than stunning.

  • ٩๏̯͡๏۶

    Please expand on that.

  • Brainard

    SRBs are self explanatory.

  • Jeff Smith

    This is a case of ATK applying technology that was developed 30 years ago for shuttle, but NASA didn’t want ATK to use at the time. The carbon composite case technology for GEMs, Castors and other motors was developed for the shuttle, but NASA went with the upgraded metal casings to get back into flight after Challenger.
    The time savings comes from getting away from the D6AC steel that was a 26 month lead time from Rohr (see the ATK motor catalog) and going with carbon composite like they do for all their other modern motors. But, these cases will NOT be reusable like the metals ones are today (which may end up costing less over the long run actually).
    The “advanced propellant” is simply changing from PBAN to HTPB binder. HTPB has a little bit more energy, but it also allows for a higher solids loading (like 88%) vs the PBAN (from the old Titan boosters) which only allows in the mid 80s (‘solids loading’ is the percent of a propellant that is actually propellant, and not the “glue” that holds it together, more solids = more good).
    This is simply a case of ATK bringing their SRBs up to date with the technology they use everywhere else in their product line, nothing truly “new” is being developed. These are upgrades mind you, but they have been around since the 1980s.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “SRBs are self explanatory.”
    Hardly a satisfactory reply. Why don’t you unleash your inner typing beast.

    I presume that what you are alluding to is the imminent reusability revolution being ushered in by SpaceX, that is enabled by liquid fuelled and throttleable engines. The energy density of solid fuels is hardly deniable, but then neither is the vast cost of throwing them away after a single use. Of course, the same applies to all systems designed to be disposable, but, by their very nature, solid fuel motors do not possess the attributes that will enable propulsive recovery.

    “Are they that unaware of what is about to happen to them?”

    I can only assume that their strategy is to make some money over the next few years and then bow out quietly. That said, the wholesale denial of the reality that is about to engulf them is quite a wonder to behold. Recovery and reuse of F9 first stages will completely demolish the small solid launcher market, and let’s be honest, the whole disposable launcher market.

  • Paul451

    This is why the whole heavy-lift program should be conducted like COTS and Commercial Crew. Multiple vendors, multiple vehicles, multiple designs, paid only on delivery. “Think you can do better? Put your money where your mouth is.”

  • Paul451

    This is a case of ATK applying technology that was developed 30 years ago for shuttle, but NASA didn’t want ATK to use at the time.

    You mean, “but NASA didn’t want to fund at the time.” There was nothing preventing ATK from developing and testing the technology itself then presenting it to NASA after it was proven as a lower cost upgrade. ATK is a wealthy company, doing research in anticipation of future upgrades shouldn’t be left to the customer to fund in advance.

    This is the core problem with how funding in government programs works. (Particularly the military.) The suppliers, no matter how large, never really have “skin in the game”. The result is that the government assessors have all responsibility placed on them, and will therefore always make the most conservative (short-sighted) or politically acceptable (and ultimately expensive) choices.

    In the same way that there was nothing to prevent ATK from developing its “Liberty” proposal when it didn’t win CCiCap funding. If they really believed it was an “advanced, safe, low cost launcher”, how is that not commercially viable to develop themselves?

  • Jeff Smith

    The DoD and NASA have punished their suppliers when they do something they didn’t want or ask for. The F-5 Freedom Fighter comes to mind, when the DoD didn’t want it, they basically forbid the export and Northrup lost all kinds of money – the other contractors learned the lesson: don’t try to do something the DoD didn’t ask for.
    Remember: 50% of DoD programs that pass QUALIFICATION testing are not put into production. The DoD spends all kinds of money, then they decide the DON’T WANT WHAT THEY PAID FOR!!! (It’s no wonder that engineers at defense contractors are depressed!) I agree that the system is crazy, but even crazy people can act rationally for their own self interest.
    With that said, I like to think of “skin in the game” as “we see other markets beyond the gov’t”. SpaceX and Orbital see other markets beyond COTS for their efforts. Boeing doesn’t see another market, so they’ve put in effectively zero of their own dollars into their capsule. If Liberty hasn’t been funded by internal dollars, it’s because ATK doesn’t see other markets.

  • Brainard

    It’s a guaranteed money losing logistical nightmare, coupled with harsh ignition stresses on the structure, and other things.

    Too numerous to mention.

  • delphinus100

    And this is one of the biggest reasons it takes outsiders like Musk, Bezos and Bigelow to make things move in spaceflight again…

  • Jeff Smith

    You’ll get no argument from me. 🙂
    We’ve been waiting a long time for this.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “….and other things. Too numerous to mention.”

    Be helpful if you did though.

  • Brainard

    Why bother? SRBs have been a non starter since about 2001 or so, and if you can’t see that there is no use explaining it. Since you are a novice consider it a homework assignment.