BRIGHAM CITY -- ATK Space Systems officials said Tuesday that ATK is entering the commercial space launch business, mating its solid-rocket motors from the space shuttle with the European-built Ariane 5 to compete for NASA's next generation of manned spaceflight launch vehicles.
Called "Liberty," the proposed vehicle would have a two-stage rocket motor.
The bottom stage would be an Ares solid-rocket motor that ATK developed for NASA's Constellation program and that is similar to the boosters now used to launch the space shuttle.
Set on top of that would be a liquid-fueled motor based on the Ariane 5 launcher now used by the European Space Agency for commercial satellites.
Constellation has been eliminated from the federal budget by President Barack Obama in favor of commercially developed human launch vehicles.
Congressmen whose districts have makers of Constellation's segments, including those in Utah, are working to keep it alive.
ATK Space Systems has already laid off more than 1,500 workers in Utah as the space shuttle winds down. It could lose as many as 2,000 more if Constellation really is canceled and ATK can't find a buyer for its solid-rocket motors.
ATK Space Systems Vice President of Strategy and Business Development Kent Rominger said Tuesday that ATK isn't waiting to see how political efforts to save Constellation work out.
ATK is using its own money to match its motors with the Ariane 5 to win development funds from NASA for the Commercial Crew Development-2 program.
If it can get those funds, he said, a Liberty motor will be ready for test firing in 2013.
Rominger, a former five-mission shuttle astronaut, said ATK Space Systems feels it has some real advantages over its competitors.
ATK's solid-rocket motors are human- rated, he said, and are cost-effective because most of the development work on them is already done.
"In the commercial world, it's all about minimizing cost and offering a product that's extremely attractive to the customers," he said Tuesday.
"We feel we have a real gold mine in that both stages (of Liberty) exist."
The Ariane 5 has not been used to launch people, but was designed to carry a never-made European astronaut capsule.
The ATK motor, in its four-segment configuration, has successfully launched 107 shuttle missions since 1988. The Ares, and now the Liberty, will use five segments per motor.
The Ares motor has already been successfully ground-tested twice, and launched once, in 2009. The Ariane 5 has successfully launched 40 commercial satellites.
Rominger said half a dozen companies are working on possible crew capsules for the future NASA manned space flight work, but only three are developing launch vehicles.
In addition to ATK, one is Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), which in 2008 won a NASA contract to resupply the International Space Station using its Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon capsule.
SpaceX says the Dragon capsule could carry people now, and its website shows a drawing of it with four astronauts. In December, SpaceX successfully launched and recovered a Dragon capsule.
The other competitor is the United Launch Alliance, a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, which builds the Atlas and Delta rocket motors.
"We are set up to offer the most safe and reliable launcher that can launch anybody's capsule out there," Rominger said.
In a news release, Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK Space Launch Systems, emphasized that, with Liberty, NASA is buying proven technology it already knows and has used.
"The Liberty initiative provides tremendous value because it builds on European Ariane 5 launcher heritage, while allowing NASA to leverage the mature first stage. We will provide unmatched payload performance at a fraction of the cost, and we will launch it from the Kennedy Space Center using facilities that have already been built."
Rominger said that, as an astronaut, "I care about human space flight, period, regardless of who's doing it. For the United States, what's most important is having a safe, reliable vehicle. The beauty in Ares is it's inherently simple, so it's safe."
ATK's motors, he said, "are designed for humans from the ground up, and nobody else's is."