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ATK loses out in high-stakes race for space money

Published: Friday, Aug. 3 2012 7:13 p.m. MDT

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station.

Nasa

WASHINGTON — NASA committed more than a billion dollars to three companies Friday to help get the U.S. back into the manned space program. But the big player in Utah was left out in the cold.

Zero dollars for Alliant Techsystems Inc. and its Liberty rocket project.

"This is very disappointing and it comes from an administration, to be honest, that has been disappointing," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, injecting the possibility that politics played a role in the selection of the companies competing with ATK.

This is the third phase of NASA’s efforts to get private space companies to take over the job of the now-retired space shuttle. The companies, Boeing Co. of Houston; Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif.; and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo., will share more than $1.1 billion.

Two of the ships are capsules like in the Apollo era and the third is closer in design to the space shuttle. Once built, NASA will hire the private companies to taxi astronauts into space within five years. Until they are ready, NASA is paying Russia about $63 million per astronaut to do the job.

Allard Beutel, NASA spokesman, said, "These three companies emerged as the ones that looked like the most viable." 

He would not offer specific information about the selection process. But Bishop, Utah's 1st District congressman, wants to know more. He called ATK's Liberty rocket the least expensive, safest and most reliable of those proposed.

"The ATK proposal is exactly the kind of program they were requesting," Bishop said. He wants NASA officials to meet with the Utah delegation to explain its decision.

"I want to make sure that there were no political institutions or political considerations that took place in this, that the winning companies did not come from swing states, nor companies that have had prior relationships with this particular administration," Bishop said.

Charles P. Vick, senior analyst for Space, GlobalSecurity.org, said "ATK did not get the contract because generally speaking they were late in making their proposal." He also said ATK could be paying a price 25 years after the Challenger disaster was triggered by a Utah solid-rocket motor.

"And I also think that NASA has the feeling that solid motors are simply not the way to go. This comes out of the shuttle experience with the deaths of shuttle flyers," he said.

ATK officials would not comment Friday other than to say they're disappointed and hoping to hear an explanation from NASA.

NASA hopes that by having private firms ferry astronauts into low-Earth orbit, it can focus on larger long-term goals, like sending crews to a nearby asteroid and eventually Mars. The private companies can also make money in tourism and other non-NASA business.

Boeing will get $460 million for its seven-person CST-100 capsule. It would launch on an Atlas rocket, with the first test flight in 2016.

SpaceX will receive $440 million. Its capsule holds seven people and will have its first test launch with people in 2015, said spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham.

Sierra Nevada’s mini-shuttle crew vehicle called Dream Chaser carries seven people and could be flown without a pilot.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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