PROMONTORY — The first test of changes to a motor that could mean five more years of sales for ATK Space Systems went off without a hitch Thursday afternoon.
The Gem 60 lit as planned at 2:30 p.m., burning loudly for 90 seconds and sending a tall plume of smoke into the blue skies of western Box Elder County, as its thunderous, rattling roar spread across the desert.
The test of the Gem 60 booster motor wasn’t as big a deal as a space shuttle motor test in terms of crowd or the amount of noise it made.
Only a couple hundred spectators turned out. Most of the “news media” were a dozen fans of space flight operations who use the social media Internet site Twitter. They came to ATK at their own expense for a NASA-sponsored “Tweetup.”
But the test could have huge meaning for the future of the 2,000 workers still producing solid rocket motors at ATK in Box Elder County.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was there, saying that everything ATK does is critical both for the future of the company’s Utah operation and the nation.
The Gem 60 is a booster motor used to help lift into space Delta IV rockets produced by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, formed five years ago.
ULA uses the Gem 60 on its Delta IV liquid-fueled rocket. The Delta IV launches a wide range of communications, military, surveillance and other types of satellites.
ATK has been producing the Gem 60 for a decade and has sold 26 of them to ULA.
John Slaughter, ATK’s vice president of commercial programs, said ATK had to make changes in the Gem 60 because a company recently quit making a critical component of the motor’s nozzle.
ATK now makes the nozzle itself out of different material, so Thursday’s test was critical to show that the nozzle still works as it should.
In addition, he said, the motor was chilled to 30 degrees to test it at cold temperatures, in case the need for that capability ever arises.
“Every time something changes in a motor, we’re very cautious about testing it, because the safety of the motor is critical,” Slaughter said.
In an ironic twist, United Launch Alliance is one of the companies ATK is competing with to win a contract with NASA to supply the next human-rated launch vehicles for manned space exploration.
United Launch Alliance is developing its Atlas booster for the future manned space mission, and ATK is developing its Liberty launch vehicle.
Slaughter said that’s how things are in the space industry.
“Obviously, the landscape of the launch businesses is getting more complex,” he said, because NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles with its dedicated system of suppliers.
Now, “We have this complex relationship with our customers competing with us,” he said. “The key is, you’ve got to be nimble.”
Hatch said he had confidence in the ATK product, noting that he and other members of Congress have given ATK a leg up on the competition to build NASA’s next non-human rated heavy lift vehicle in the budget process.
“I’ve put language in the 2010 (budget) bill that’s not specifically describing our vehicle, but the qualifications only ATK can do,” he said, “so we’ve done that, and we’re going to stay right on top of that.”
He noted that Space X successfully sent an unmanned capsule to the International Space Station and returned it to earth.
“They did, and I want to compliment Space X for what they did, but they’re about three years late doing it,” Hatch said. ATK’s solid rocket boosters are already rated for human flight, he said, and ATK is “way ahead of everybody else; they’re absolutely crucial to manned space flight.”
ATK hopes to make the Gem 60 well into the future.
Mark Wilkins, ULA vice president of operations, said ATK and ULA are working to finalize a five-year block buy of the Gem 60, which will guarantee ULA a better price and guarantee ATK continued business.
“If we do that, we’ll be buying at least 26 more of these,” he said, at a price of about $5 million each.