ATK has announced the development of a unique capsule for the Liberty launch vehicle (LV) as part of its bid for NASA's commercial crew integrated capability (CCiCap), which is meant to develop a system to launch astronauts to the International Space Station.

"We're starting with the service module that NASA Glenn designed for beyond low Earth orbit (LEO)," says Kent Rominger, ATK vice president and programme manager. "We're simplifying that, we don't need to carry near as much propellant, that leaves us with some space to carry unpressurized cargo for Space Station."

The capsule, called simply 'Liberty spacecraft,' is heavily based off ATK's composite crew module, a one-off test bed delivered to NASA in 2009 to test use of composites in spacecraft.

"We're trying to minimize any changes," adds Rominger. "The fact is, the module as it is today is probably overdesigned, it's stronger and more robust than we actually need."

The capsule's first two flights are scheduled in 2014, both abort tests, followed in 2015 by an orbital flight and, finally, a crewed orbital flight. The spacecraft is designed for ten flights each, and ATK plans to build a minimum of four capsules. All flights will be launched by the Liberty launcher, and ATK is not actively exploring adapting the capsule for other LVs.

While ATK is constructing the outer shell, Lockheed Martin has been selected to fill crucial roles such as systems assembly and integration. The capsule will have significant commonalities with Lockheed's Orion capsule, a much larger spacecraft being developed for long-duration missions beyond Earth's orbit.

"The systems are going to have a lot of commonality," says Rominger. "Guidance, navigation, control, heat shield, backshell, everywhere that system fits a low earth orbit mission, we're going with it. If you don't have to develop, test, certify, you're way ahead."

The Liberty LV is designed to launch around 44,500lb (22,000kg) to low Earth orbit. The LV was awarded an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) from NASA, allowing information sharing and giving an official imprimatur.

 Liberty capsule


ATK intends Liberty to appeal to a range of customers, seeing openings in commercial and government launch markets. The company fully intends to compete the LV for government missions that require the most reliable launchers, including high-value NASA science payloads and National Reconnaissance Office spy satellites.

"Our business case is robust. In the commercial world, that's where I think Liberty also is at an advantage. Because we control the entire stack, cargo is part of our business case, as are standalone missions. We've been talking with Costa Rica, Brazil, Australia."

Liberty LV is uses a five-segment solid rocket booster as a first stage, derived from those used to launch the Space Shuttle, and the Vulcain 2 as a second stage (used on Ariane V as a first stage). Competition for CCiCap funding is fierce, including companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin. NASA is set to announce downselects later in 2012.

Source: Flight International