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Alliant Techsystems and NASA have signed an agreement to explore whether the company's Liberty rocket can be used to eventually transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

The unfunded agreement, which is expected to run through at least next March, is part of a NASA effort to accelerate the development of commercial services within the private sector that it may want to use to put vehicles into low-Earth orbit.

ATK, perhaps best known for providing the solid-fuel rocket booster motors used to launch the space shuttle, announced in early February it was working to develop the two-stage Liberty rocket.

The rocket will use as its first stage a five-segment Utah-built motor similar to the four-segment boosters used on the space shuttle. The second stage, a liquid-fueled engine, would be produced by Astrium, an arm of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., based in the Netherlands.

ATK and Astrium, whose rocket was designed to launch the Hermes Space Plane that was cancelled in the 1990s and never flew, boast that their motors have been used on dozens of successful flights.

"We're interested in helping ATK and its partner develop the capabilities that they have" with Liberty, Ed Mango, NASA's commercial crew program manager, said at a press conference Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

He said the agreement will provide NASA with the opportunity to look at the Liberty system and its design to understand how it could be used to safely fly NASA crews. Mango estimated that as many of 24 NASA employees will be involved with the project.

The agreement also will help stabilize ATK's Utah's workforce by giving existing employees additional work, said Kent Rominger, vice president of strategy and business development for the rocket motor maker.

ATK, which has about 2,000 aerospace employees in Utah, has gone through a series of layoffs in the past several years as defense spending changed gears, work ended on the space shuttle program and President Barack Obama demanded NASA focus on a wider commercial development of space rockets.

"This agreement enables us to exchange information with NASA and receive valuable insight as we develop our fixed-price commercial crew vehicle," Rominger said.

About 35 to 40 people work directly on ATK's Liberty project, but many more are involved in the development of the new five-segment motor that the company intends to use on its new launch system. ATK test fired one of the five-segment motors, which was built under an existing contract with NASA, last week at its Promontory plant west of Brigham City.

Liberty will have the capability of lifting more than 44,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, well within the range needed to put a crew vehicle with seven astronauts on board into space, he said.

Although the ATK and Astrium systems use well-developed technology, there still is a lot for the two companies and NASA to learn. And that includes how the two different motors can best be integrated and what types the avionics will be needed.

ATK's goal is to test launch Liberty fin 2014. It hopes to have a crew aboard the rocket's third flight in 2015.

"Now that we are working closely with NASA, we will also look for (private) funding sources to further speed the development of Liberty," Rominger said.

He said beauty of the Liberty system is its simplicity. "We get into orbit with just two engines. And price-wise, nobody will be able to match what Liberty can do."

Twitter: @OberbeckBiz