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WASHINGTON - It appears Utah's ATK will help supply the thrust for the next generation of the space shuttle, a significant victory for the company that for decades has helped launch astronauts out of Earth's atmosphere.
NASA and Pentagon officials wrote to the White House this month that the design of the space shuttle's replacement will be derived from the parts of the current shuttle.
The letter, provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, is the "strongest indication yet" that ATK will still provide the solid rocket boosters now used by the shuttle.
"This is a very positive development for us," said ATK spokesman Bryce Hallowell.
NASA plans to retire the current space shuttle fleet by 2010 and develop a new space vehicle to replace it by 2014. ATK has been making a full-court press to stay involved with the space program and its lucrative contracts that help employ 4,600 workers in Utah.
Though NASA hasn't yet finalized its architectural plans for the new spacecraft, ATK, whose shuttle operations are based in Brigham City, is excited that its solid rocket motors apparently are still going to be a prime component.
"It's very big for Utah in that we'll be the backbone of the launch systems," said Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut and now ATK's vice president of strategy and business development.
ATK has now hired five lobbyists, four of them former astronauts, to ensure it stays in the mix of contractors involved in the next generation of the space vehicle.
While plans so far are preliminary, chances are the new space vehicle will look more like the ones used during the Apollo missions, where the crew is housed above the rocket during launch and returns to space in a pod that would be parachuted to the ground.
In fact, the crew's pod may land in the western United States, according to NASA, possibly in the wide-open expanses of Utah or Nevada. ATK also is bidding to be involved in the construction of a crew escape hatch that would allow astronauts to jettison out of the spacecraft should a problem occur during launch or re-entry.
The hunt for a new space vehicle has been in the works for a while, but was pushed up after Columbia exploded during re-entry in 2003, killing its seven passengers. Foam falling off the shuttle's external tanks was later found to have caused the destruction. Discovery, which landed last week in California, faced a similar problem, though the foam didn't strike the shuttle exterior.
NASA has grounded indefinitely the three remaining space shuttles, built in the mid-1970s, while it figures out how to ensure against the recurring issue.
In the meantime, NASA - which plans to return to the moon and try for a Mars landing in the next decade - is expected to release its architectural plans soon on what the next space vehicle will look like. Designs so far have centered on launching cargo and astronauts separately.
ATK is hoping to play a major part in both. The company is touting a larger rocket motor with five segments instead of the current four used for the space shuttle. The extra motor segment will give more thrust, allowing more cargo to be launched.
Former astronaut and U.S. senator from Utah, Jake Garn, argues ATK should remain part of the program because of its extensive history with NASA.
"I don't think most people understand how important [ATK] has been to the space program nationally," Garn says. "I don't know of any companies that are as capable with all that experience. Beyond the need from Utah and the economy out here, it's critical to the space program."
The Space Foundation's Jim Banke says the space shuttle has served well, but there is a need for a new vehicle that won't be as fragile. While many have hoped for a space vehicle that would take off like a plane and land like one, Banke says the new designs are going for a simpler approach.
"They are looking at going back to some of the simplicity of Apollo," Banke says. "We don't need to be fancy and cutting edge to go back to space; we just need it to work."
ATK bought Thiokol Propulsion in 2001, making it the world's largest supplier of solid propellant rocket motors.