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Washington • The head of the nation's space program told Utah's elected leaders Wednesday that test flights of the new Space Launch System featuring ATK rocket motors remain on schedule and will take place in 2017.
The solid rocket motors that will propel the new launch system will be made in northern Utah by defense and aerospace contractor Alliant Techsystems, or ATK as it is known. The move is a welcome sign for a company that has been laying off hundreds of Utahns in recent years as it wrapped up other government space and defense contracts, including the rocket motors for the now-retired space shuttle program.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met with Utah's four congressional Republicans, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson was unable to attend the meeting.
ATK said it is ready to respond. "We are absolutely on schedule and have our next ground test for the five-segment booster [that will be used on NASA's new Space Launch System] scheduled for next summer. And just three weeks ago we completed a major avionics test for the system," said George Torres, spokesman for ATK's Aerospace Group in Utah.
Avionics are the electronics brains that control the rocket.
Utah's members of Congress have fought to make sure that the new system will incorporate solid rocket motors made in Utah as opposed to relying completely on liquid fuel motors that some have advocated.
They left the meeting with Bolden pleased.
"I'll keep in close contact with Administrator Bolden to ensure this process continues to move forward," said Hatch, who organized the meeting.
Bishop, R-Utah, represents the area where the rocket motors are manufactured. He once again expressed his frustration with President Barack Obama's space strategy, which emphasizes private development of rockets to reach lower-Earth orbit, while NASA focuses on missions farther out in space.
Bishop believes the move is short-sighted, giving the Russian government space supremacy in the short term and hurting the nation's missile defense capabilities.
"I recognize that Administrator Bolden has been tasked with a difficult mission in implementing many of the administration's space policies," Bishop said. "I was pleased to hear his confirmation that we remain on schedule for 2017. Ensuring that delays are not occurring with the progression of the Space Launch System is a priority."
ATK has been a key player in the nation's aerospace and space industry for the past several decades. It employs about 3,200 Utahns in three divisions, Aerospace Structures in Clearfield, its Space Launch in Promontory and Defense and Commercial in Magna.
Tribune reporter Steven Oberbeck contributed to this story