Liberty project: BBC/Amos analysis

“The Liberty rocket and the ‘genetics’ of human spaceflight”

I wondered how long it would take before we saw Europe’s biggest space company, Astrium, step into the race to develop a follow-on to the soon-to-be retired space shuttle.

It needs a US partner to get involved in the Nasa commercial crew development programme, of course, and in ATK it has one of the key companies in human spaceflight rocketry.

The new vehicle would incorporate a shuttle-derived, five-segment, solid-fuelled booster provided by ATK as the first stage, with an Ariane 5 cryogenic-core-stage and Vulcain-2 engine from Astrium making up the second stage (Vulcains are produced by French firm Snecma).

It’s a meaty combination that could put 20 tonnes in low-Earth orbit. The companies say Liberty could launch any of the commercial crew capsules now in development.

I’ve written about quite a few of these concepts, most recently the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser. Back in the summer I also looked at the Boeing CST-100 vehicle.

ATK, as the lead in the partnership, has entered the Liberty proposal into the second round of Nasa’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev), hoping to secure some funding assistance. We’ll find out in the coming weeks just how successful that’s been.

Nasa is likely to be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in various concepts over the coming years in a bid to seed operators that can then sell crew launch services back to the agency and anyone else who might want to go into orbit.

The “anyone else” could be other government bodies like the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, which do not currently possess indigenous human launch capabilities, or privateers looking to establish new space enterprises.

Here, tourism is an obvious contender.

Just looking at the artist’s impression of Liberty rolling out to the launch pad at Kennedy on a crawler-transporter, I’m immediately reminded of the Ares-1 rocket that Nasa was pursuing as a crew launcher until President Obama and the US Congress decided to abandon the project.

Ares and Liberty are both stick thin; and of course ATK would have provided the Ares first stage as well.

ATK is hoping this will be part of the appeal of the Liberty concept – the new vehicle would be seen as taking advantage of all the investment that US taxpayers put into Ares before its cancellation. That investment included the test firing of two giant five-segment boosters on ATK’s range in its home state of Utah. In that sense, Liberty can be said to be off and running already.

Kent Rominger is a former Nasa Chief of the Astronaut Corps who now works for ATK. Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, he was keen to emphasise the safety aspects of the Liberty design:

“In my mind one of the most important attributes is providing a launcher that is very, very safe, and reliable. Our Liberty rocket is inherently reliable. You do that by starting with a system that is as simple as can be.
You minimise the number of areas where we’ve learnt in the past that failures can result in a catastrophe. So an as example, we have only two stages, meaning we have just one staging event. Each stage has only one engine – so there’s only one place that can fail there.
In addition to that, we’re leveraging all the experience that both companies have – and the hardware that has been proven.”

For ATK’s employees also, the announcement of the Liberty project must be most welcome. The company has indicated it would have to slim down given that its shuttle boosters are no longer required beyond this year.

For European commentators like myself, the Astrium involvement is most interesting. I was in the company’s Les Mureaux facility near Paris just last month, walking around the Ariane 5 core stages as they were joined to their Vulcain engines just prior to shipment to the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

The Ariane 5 is “a vehicle that has human spaceflight in its genes”. That’s how Silvio Sandrone, Astrium’s vice-president of launcher sales and business development, described the rocket to me today.

It was conceived with the intention of launching Europe’s Hermes crew ship, before that project – like the US Ares rocket – was cancelled on the grounds of cost.

It’s as if Ariane 5 has been waiting, though, for those genetics to be re-discovered. Most of us thought that if it happened it would come through European governments deciding to upgrade Esa’s robotic freighter, ATV, into a crew ship and launching it off the top of an Ariane 5.

That idea still looks a long, long way away, especially in the current economic climate across Europe.

Taking the Ariane 5 core stage and sticking it atop a shuttle solid-rocket-booster is not entirely left-field but I doubt it would be many people’s first suggestion.

The idea came from ATK, apparently, which first approached Arianespace, the company that sells Ariane launch services. Arianespace then spoke to Astrium, which leads the European Ariane manufacturing consortium. They love the idea.

The core stage will necessarily need some modifications. For a start, the Vulcain engine will have to be made to ignite in a vacuum – something it doesn’t have to do currently. But the big thought running through my head today is not technical but philosophical.

Europeans often bemoan reliance on US systems and talk about developing an independent crew launch capability. But isn’t this a rather outmoded idea? Surely, the direction in which “new space” is taking us is one where big multi-national concerns dominate, buying and selling services in ways that cut across borders and traditional government lines and ties.

This is true of the wider economy. Oil, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, media – the biggest companies operate globally. They may have a HQ in a particular country but their outlook is trans-national. Silvio Sandrone told me:

“It’s a good question. From Europe’s point of view, you want to be independent to do in space the things you really want to do.
One can think of navigation, Earth observation – those kinds of things. These we would want to do on our own, and for me it is clear that these types of applications are necessarily linked to European sovereignty and have to have their own launcher.

It’s up to the politicians to decide if human spaceflight is something we want to do on our own or in some sort of international cooperation. Only European governments can tell us what they want.

But maybe Liberty will be an intermediate step. If there were an American launcher with significant European industrial participation, this might spur Europe to think again and to think more proactively about affording itself a crew capability, at least with a capsule first.”
Jonathan Amos | 19:49 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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