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The competition heats up? Orbital ATK says it will decide whether it will introduce a new commercial rocket sometime in early 2018.
Orbital ATK has released few details about what is known only as its “Next-Generation Launcher.” The vehicle would use solid-fuel lower stages based on space shuttle solid rocket motor segments developed by the company, as well as solid strap-on boosters. A liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen upper stage would use a version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine that company is currently flying on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.
The rocket’s design has at least superficial similarities to a vehicle concept called Liberty that ATK proposed prior to its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation. Liberty, with a five-segment shuttle solid rocket booster first stage and a second stage derived from the Ariane 5 core stage provided by Astrium, was itself a commercial spinoff of the cancelled Ares 1 rocket from NASA’s Constellation program. ATK proposed Liberty for NASA’s commercial crew program but failed to win funding.
The decision itself will be based on whether the Air Force remains interested. At the present time the Air Force is investing about half the capital required to develop the rocket. If the Air Force backs out, Orbital ATK will decide against the rocket. If the Air Force support remains firm, they will go ahead with development. Essentially, this story is Orbital ATK lobbying to keep the Air Force support going.