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Regardless of whether the government agrees to help fund Alliant Techsystems' rocket that would take astronauts to the International Space Station, the Utah company intends to move forward with its project because it believes there will be no shortage of commercial customers.
ATK and a partner on Tuesday unveiled the two-stage Liberty rocket that they want NASA to use as the next launch vehicle for the U.S. space program. And they are hoping the space agency will see fit to award it at least a portion of a $200 million pool of money set aside for promising projects.
"With that seed money we would be able to test launch Liberty in 2013 and have it fully operational by 2015," said ATK spokeswoman Trina Patterson. "Absent that funding, our first test would be in 2015, with the Liberty fully operational a couple of years later."
Despite ATK's willingness to fund the project on its own, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is urging congressional leaders to continue to invest in manned space flight and said if the Liberty program takes off, it will be a bonus for the country.
"The solid rockets that propel manned flights for NASA take the same personnel to build as the solid rockets for our missile defense," Bishop said. "So simply, if you screw over the manned space program you also screw over the work force that does our defense systems."
The Liberty rocket would use a Utah-built solid-fuel motor similar to those used for the space shuttle as the first stage, with the second liquid-fueled stage produced by a European company,Astrium. Both companies boast that their motors have been used on dozens of successful flights.
Yet melding the two technologies the companies have never worked together before remains a challenge. "We have a team of 30 people working full time on that goal as we speak," Patterson said.
ATK unveiled its Liberty program as its response to a request from NASA, which is looking for a commercial rocket system that it can hire to take its astronauts and cargo into space rather than buying rockets from contractors.
"NASA may want to use Liberty, but even if it doesn't, we have other potential customers," Patterson said, suggesting the rocket may be used to put defense satellites into orbit and eventually to help private companies expand into the space tourism business. "It is a growth opportunity for us."
ATK, which has about 2,100 aerospace employees in Utah, has gone through a series of layoffs in the past several years as defense spending changed gears, work ebbed on the soon-to-end space shuttle program and President Barack Obama demanded NASA focus on a wider commercial development of space rockets.
Patterson said if NASA accepts the company's bid to use the Liberty rocket it would help preserve 400 Utah jobs.
NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said federal procurement laws prevented him from discussing or even acknowledging whether others beside the ATK consortium have presented competing offers for commercial space-launch services.
He said NASA is expected to announce by the end of March which commercial system it intends to support.