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Ravell Call, Deseret News
People watch as ATK and NASA test the third five-segment solid rocket motor, known as Development Motor-3 at Promontory, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011.

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — A high-stakes competition will climax Friday that has nothing to do with the Olympics. The gold medal in this competition is $500 million in federal funding to help a Utah company develop the next generation of manned space-launch vehicles.

     Workers at ATK (Alliant Techsystems Inc.) will hear an early morning announcement by NASA on contracts that could set in motion years of development of ATK's proposed Liberty rocket at the Utah site.

      "I wished I could say I was very confident," ATK's Kent Rominger said.  "I'm not."

    At least four companies are involved in the battle for NASA funding. It would pay for the next 21 months of design and development of a "commercial crew vehicle."

   NASA hopes to use commercial vehicles developed and owned by private companies to lift astronauts into orbit and deliver them to the International Space Station. Currently, the United States has no vehicle to perform that function so NASA astronauts are hitching rides on Russian rockets.

The competing companies are vying to replace the now-defunct Space Shuttle.  ATK hopes to put a test crew in space on its Liberty rocket by 2015 and to launch a NASA crew the following year.

   If NASA gives ATK the contract, it will get up to $500 million to move the Liberty program to its final design stage. But it's no sure thing for ATK; the company lost out in two previous NASA competitions.

    "In every realm, I emphasize that I think we have the leading candidate," Rominger, a veteran NASA astronaut and manager of ATK's Liberty program, said. But three other major players are vying for NASA dollars:

• Boeing is developing a launch vehicle called the CST-100.

• Space X has tested a spacecraft called the Dragon.

• Sierra Nevada is developing a winged vehicle called the Dream Chaser.

     NASA could choose two of the competing projects for full funding, with a third proposal receiving partial funding. But NASA has not revealed its plans.

    "When I look at all the merits of my system," Rominger said, "I can't imagine us not being chosen. Having said that, to date, this is the third competition and we have never been chosen."

    Rominger claims the Liberty rocket is safer than its competitors. The competing designs he said were originally developed as unmanned cargo vehicles and satellite delivery systems. By contrast, Rominger said, Liberty was designed from the beginning as a manned launch system. It borrows proven concepts from Space Shuttle and Apollo programs.

    Rominger said NASA encouraged companies to take advantage of technologies developed by NASA over the past 50 years.

    "I'm leveraging everything that we as taxpayers have developed," Rominger said. "If you total all the billions that have been spent into my system before I started, it's probably approaching $10 billion. So I've got a huge head start."

    If ATK is not chosen for NASA funding, the company could proceed using its own money. But that's a steeper trajectory for the Liberty program.