SALT LAKE CITY — One of Utah's biggest employers is throwing a pitch to NASA that could launch a whole new ballgame for getting people into space.
The proposal from ATK, which some are calling a "space taxi" or a "space rental car," could mean 300 to 400 jobs in northern Utah. From a national perspective, it would restore the nation's manned spaceflight capability after the space shuttle becomes a museum-piece later this year.
ATK executive Kent Rominger said in an interview Tuesday the company is responding to President Barack Obama's call for more "commercialization" of the space program. "They're saying, OK, we want people to come to us with a commercial launcher that can take our astronauts to and from the space station. That's what we're offering," said Rominger, who was an astronaut before becoming ATK's program manager for the new Liberty rocket.
For a third of a century, space shuttles have been blasting off the launchpad on Utah-made solid-fuel boosters. ATK tried to recycle those boosters into the ill-fated Ares rocket, which the government canceled.
The new concept is to take a made-in-Utah shuttle booster and match it up with a made-in-France liquid-fuel rocket. That "second-stage" rocket would be borrowed from the highly successful European Ariane rocket. The resulting Liberty Launch Vehicle would be built in a partnership between ATK and European companies.
The Ariane rocket program has been used primarily for launching satellites into high-altitude geo-synchronous orbits, while ATK's work has been focused on putting astronauts in low Earth orbit. "We're extremely lucky that, just coincidentally, this upper stage, this tremendous upper stage, exists. And it pairs up greatly with our vehicle," Rominger said.
The Liberty rocket would be crowned with a space-plane or capsule that astronauts would ride into space. "There are about a half a dozen companies out there with capsule designs or small space-planes," Rominger said. "We can lift all of them."
Since the Constellation and Ares programs died last year, space contractors and their supporters in Congress have been pushing for a new means of boosting astronauts into orbit.
"NASA is retiring the space shuttle this year," Rominger said. "After it retires, we in the U.S. right now have no means to put our own astronauts onto our space station."
Without a replacement program, it's expected that American astronauts would have to ride on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station.
The real innovation of the Liberty program may be in the paperwork. Instead of the traditional approach, in which NASA buys rockets from contractors like ATK, the government would just pay for the launch under the new commercialization concept.
"We at ATK are going to sell them a service," Rominger said. "We own the vehicle, NASA does not. They're merely buying the service from us. They're not buying the vehicle."
Some will undoubtedly argue the company is just trying to recycle technology that was conceived almost a half-century ago. But the company's argument is that it's proven technology. "You know, it's the most reliable technology on the planet right now," Rominger said. He said both the space shuttle and Ariane programs have excellent safety and performance records over many years.
If NASA accepts the ATK proposal and helps Liberty get off the ground, the government wouldn't necessarily be the only customer. Other businesses might pay for launch services. According to ATK, one company is currently proposing to put a hotel-casino into orbit in a module that would be attached to the International Space Station. That company might pay the Liberty partnership to put gamblers and vacationers into orbit.
ATK hopes to win Liberty seed money from NASA later this spring. About $200 million is available but several companies have competing proposals for space commercialization. If the Liberty program gets a financial boost from NASA, Rominger said test launches could begin in the year 2013 and astronauts could be riding Liberty into orbit by 2015.
Romingersaid the Liberty program would mean about 700 long-term jobs for the company, about half of which would be in Utah.