Tag Archives: ATK

Solid rocket motors for American rockets?

The competition heats up: Even as ULA and Blue Origin begin work building an American engine to replace the Russian engines on the Atlas 5 rocket, ATK is offering its solid rocket motors for both Atlas 5 as well as Antares.

The company’s sales pitch is that they can get their product ready faster and cheaper. And since they are merging with Orbital Sciences anyway, I will not be at all surprised if Antares ends up with ATK solid rocket motors for its first stage.

As for Atlas 5, this sales pitch is actually aimed at Congress, which could step in and force ULA to buy ATK motors instead of Blue Origin’s new engine, even if this switch is against the wishes of ULA. As foolish as this might seem, the politics of pork (ATK provides more jobs than Blue Origin) could make it happen.

Orbital Sciences is considering using ATK’s solid rocket motors to replace the refurbished Russian engines in the first stage of its Antares rocket.

Orbital Sciences is considering using ATK’s solid rocket motors to replace the refurbished Russian engines in the first stage of its Antares rocket.

This helps explain the merger between the two companies, as it gives Orbital control over the equipment it needs to keep Antares viable. More important, it also could make it entirely American made, which will be attractive to both Congress and many U.S. commercial satellite companies.

ATK is splitting off its aerospace division to merge that division with Orbital Sciences.

The competition cools? ATK is splitting off its aerospace division to merge that division with Orbital Sciences.

Alliant Techsystems Inc. ATK on Tuesday said it plans to split into two independent companies, one focused on outdoor sports and hunting products, the other centered on aerospace and defense. The outdoor sports operations–which produce commercial ammunition, hunting products and other related items–will be spun off to Alliant shareholders in a tax-free transaction, the company said. The segment generated $2.2 billion in revenue during 2013, Alliant said.

After the separation, Alliant said it plans to merge the aerospace and defense business–which produces rocket propulsion systems and satellite systems, among other things–with rocket and space-system developer Orbital Sciences Inc. The company will be named Orbital ATK Inc.

More here. The company press releases call this “a merger of equals” and do not make it clear what instigated the deal. Did Orbital offer to buy ATK’s aerospace division with its ammo business spun off, or did ATK want to sell off its aerospace division to focus on ammo? I wonder. The ammo business right now is booming, while aerospace remains a much more risky venture. ATK might have wanted to focus on ammo, where the money is, and proposed the idea to Orbital.

A engineering problem during construction of one of the shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters for SLS is causing delays.

A engineering problem during construction of one of the shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters for SLS is causing delays.

[The] original test target of mid-2013 slipped when an issue with the aft segment [of the booster] was found. Inspection of the segment showed it was contained an area where propellant had debonded from the inside of the segment wall. Following analysis – which notably found no voids in the propellant itself – NASA decided to ask ATK to scrap the segment and cast a replacement.

Preparations … continued, with the shipping and integration of forward and center segments at the test site, while ATK went to work to replace the aft segment, following approval – post investigation – from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. After ATK successfully cast the replacement segment in July, technicians carried out routine ultrasound and x-ray tests. Unfortunately, the tests showed this segment had also had similar voids. [emphasis mine.]

The Space Launch System (SLS), was mandated by Congress to use as much shuttle-derived components as possible in order to supposedly save money as well as employ as many of the companies that built those components as possible. In reality, however, every one of those components has required significant redesign to make them work in SLS. In the case of the solid rocket boosters, the four segment shuttle boosters were not powerful enough. They had to be expanded to five segments.

Moreover, it appears from this article it was other technically unnecessary changes to the boosters that are now causing this problem.
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ATK has joined Stratolaunch, winning a contract to provide solid rocket motors for company’s proposed second stage air-launched rocket.

The competition heats up: ATK has joined Stratolaunch, winning a contract to provide solid rocket motors for company’s proposed second stage air-launched rocket.

Stratolaunch’s first stage will take off from a runway, and will be the largest airplane ever built. The second stage, which Orbital Sciences is building and which ATK is now be a partner, will be released from this airplane and then ignite.

ATK and ULA yesterday successfully tested the solid rocket strap-on motor that is used by their Delta 4 rocket.

The competition heats up: ATK and ULA yesterday successfully tested the solid rocket strap-on motor that is used by their Delta 4 rocket. With video.

They are using a new manufacturer for the motor’s nozzle, and needed to test this under cold conditions.

ATK’s push to build its Liberty launch system.

The competition heats up: ATK’s push to build its Liberty launch system.

Liberty was one of the suitors [for NASA’s commercial crew] funding, before losing out to the four aforementioned options during the selection process. However, ATK decided to press on with the development of the system under an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA), with a clear intent of convincing NASA they deserve to be awarded funding for the path towards crewed launches.

Indeed, ATK have stated that they will continue with the development of Liberty regardless of NASA funding, as much as Agency support would provide an accelerated schedule towards bringing the vehicle into operation by 2015. [emphasis mine]

If you read the article, you will see that there are many reasons why I would rather NASA did not pick ATK. The system depends too much on the shuttle’s legacy at the Kennedy Space Center (the VAB, crawler, etc), which means it will probably require a large labor force to launch and thus be expensive. However, if ATK can make Liberty profitable without NASA, I am all for them.

ATK today announced that it is building its own manned capsule for its Liberty solid rocket.

The competition continues to heat up: ATK today announced that it is building its own manned capsule for its Liberty launch system.

The capsule’s first two flights are scheduled in 2014, both abort tests, followed in 2015 by an orbital flight and, finally, a crewed orbital flight. The spacecraft is designed for ten flights each, and ATK plans to build a minimum of four capsules. All flights will be launched by the Liberty launcher, and ATK is not actively exploring adapting the capsule for other [launch vehicles].

Liberty is based on the upgraded shuttle solid rocket boosters that were developed for the Ares rocket, now cancelled.

ATK prepares for another test firing of its five-segment solid rocket motor.

ATK prepares for another test firing of its five-segment solid rocket motor.

The qualification campaign, led by rocket-builder ATK, will prove the solid-fueled motor is ready to help propel the Space Launch System from Earth on two test flights in 2017 and 2021.

Though obviously funded out of the Space Launch System program (SLS), there is no guarantee at this moment that ATK’s solid rocket will be used in these test flights. NASA has said that they are considering all options for picking the launch rocket.

In a sense, we are now seeing a side benefit produced by relying on independent and competing private companies to get into space. It has placed pressure on NASA and the companies building SLS to perform. Unlike in the past, when failure to produce a new rocket or spaceship meant that NASA would simply propose a new concept and start again, now failure will mean that someone else might get the work. The result: SLS might actually get built, for less money and faster.

Though I don’t see how NASA can possibly cut the costs down to compete with these private companies, their effort might succeed enough for Congress to keep the money spigots open until the rocket gets built.

Even as I say this I remain skeptical. Considering the federal budget situation, the politics of the upcoming election, and the strong possibility that private companies will successfully provide that launch capability at a tenth the cost, I expect that sometime in the next two or three years Congress will finally balk at SLS’s cost, and eliminate it.

NASA and ATK sign new launch development agreement

At a press conference today, NASA and ATK announced a new launch development agreement, running through March 2012, to help develop ATK’s Liberty solid rocket into a launch vehicle that could bring both cargo and crews to ISS.

The agreement provides ATK no funds, but is designed to give ATK as much support from NASA as possible in developing Liberty, tested fired last week for only the third time. If this initial agreement goes well, it will position ATK to compete for the next round of development subsidizes.

According to ATK, they think they could launch by 2015, and are hoping to provide a rocket capable of flying the spacecraft and freighters of Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, and even SpaceX (should Falcon 9 have problems and they need a rocket to launch Dragon).
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Speculation on what the ATK/NASA announcement later today will be about

More speculation here and here on what the ATK/NASA announcement later today will be about. As Jeff Foust notes,

Last Friday NASA announced that the space agency and ATK would announce an agreement this Tuesday “that could accelerate the availability of U.S. commercial crew transportation capabilities”. (The announcement was originally going to be only available to media calling into a telecon line, but NASA said Monday the announcement will be on NASA TV at 3 pm EDT.) The announcement has generated various degrees of glee or despair, depending on one’s opinions about ATK’s work on solid rocket motors it has proposed for its Liberty rocket and is seeking to have incorporated into NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket.

ATK test fires the five segment solid rocket for Ares 1

ATK today successfully test fired the five segment solid rocket originally intended for the Ares 1 rocket. More here.

This solid rocket motor has value, but ATK’s hope that NASA will use it as part of the Congressionally designed Space Launch System, what I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation, is probably a false hope. They might get a few years of funding from Congress, but the whole thing will die stillborn when the funding runs out.

Better that they packaged the motor as part of a private launch system and tried to get some commercial business with it.

Regardless, the video is fun to watch. Check it out.