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NASA gives ATK a thank you, big check, possible mission to Mars

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 6:52 p.m. MDT

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — NASA is giving a big pat on the back — and a big chunk of money — to the rocket builders at ATK.

It involves work the company is doing to achieve the next giant leap into space, much farther than humans have ever gone before. And it may start with a steppingstone beyond the far side of the moon.

"Well, it's all about getting to Mars," said Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator, who traveled from Washington to personally thank ATK employees for their cost-cutting efforts.

"A big thank you to the ATK team," Dumbacher said to a crowd of employees gathered Tuesday in one of the massive production buildings on ATK's sprawling facility. "You guys are a big part of us getting back into space and beyond low Earth orbit."

ATK had a big setback a few weeks ago when it lost out to some other companies competing for NASA money. In that showdown, the goal was development of systems for getting astronauts into low-Earth orbits used by the International Space Station.

But ATK is still very much in the running for much more ambitious space adventures thousands of times farther from Earth. Possible destinations include asteroids, the moon and, of course, the red planet.

"(The) ultimate destination is Mars," Dumbacher said. "We're going to Mars. Where we go in between here and Mars is still being sorted out."

About 600 workers at ATK are focused on the project.

"It absolutely gets my juices going," said Charlie Precourt, a veteran astronaut and now a vice president of ATK. "The excitement, the intensity, the pulling together of all the resources that we can to do something we've never done before is always the thing that gets people going."

ATK is adapting the company's old space-shuttle boosters to lift long-range vehicles into space. NASA has already kicked in more than $200 million for ATK's work on the so-called "Space Launch System."

ATK is contracted to perform two static ground tests and two test flights in the next decade. This week, NASA kicked in an additional $51 million, which ATK will use to develop a more advanced version of the booster and to conduct one additional test flight.

With competition raging among various space companies, ATK launched a major effort over the past year to reduce costs of internal operations. The effort known as "value stream mapping" was designed to find ways of processing various booster parts more rapidly while still maintaining a high degree of quality control.

According to ATK officials, employees came up with 400 significant improvements, resulting in a 46 percent reduction in the time required to refurbish used space shuttle boosters and make them ready for flight.

"The country is asking us to do a lot more for less," said Alex Priskos of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, "and you guys have been amazing in the way you have stepped up to it."

The goal of the Space Launch System is to take astronauts far beyond the Earth-orbiting space station and the distance traveled by astronauts who landed on the moon four decades ago.

While Mars remains the long-term goal, NASA reportedly briefed the White House a few days ago on a new possible interim destination. It's a point in space far beyond the moon known as a Lagrange Point. At these rare locations in space, gravity balances out, allowing a space station to park more or less permanently in that spot.

A space station parked there could be used as a remote observation point, and astronauts there could remotely control robotic missions that might land on the back side of the moon.

"A presence on the other side of the moon enables science that we haven't done before," Precourt said. "So it's a very exciting possibility."

The Lagrange Point parking spot could also be used as a staging platform for much deeper space missions to asteroids or to Mars.

"A Space Launch System that will explore beyond low Earth orbit could be in operation for a couple of decades or longer," Precourt said. "So this is a huge opportunity for us to be part of that team from the beginning."

ATK has had its up and downs in the space program. Three years ago, the company had 4,500 Utah workers. Now, there are just 2,100 jobs. Workers know that it's a competitive business and that NASA could choose another company for the long haul.

"To be competitive, we have got to be cost-effective," Precourt said.

NASA has urged its contractors to reduce costs. Dumbacher indicated it could play a big role in which companies stay on board the program.

"We're going to be working on getting the costs down," he said, "and it will be a key criteria in our decision process."

The key turning point for ATK could come in 2015, when NASA will choose among competing companies. Assuming the program stays alive for 20 years or more, it could mean billions of dollars in business for ATK.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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