Astrium to build launcher for space taxi service

Astrium is to build the launcher for a new space taxi service to the International Space Station.

The European aerospace company today announced it was partnering with US firm ATK to create the new Liberty launch vehicle for NASA.

The launcher will combine elements of Astrium’s Ariane 5 system, which primarily launches satellites for the European Space Agency (ESA), with technology developed by ATK for NASA’s Space Exploration Program.

Liberty will have the ability to launch 44,500lb to the International Space Station orbit and so carry any crew vehicle in development.

It will leverage billions of dollars of investment by NASA and the ESA to effectively provide a commercial alternative for the Ares I project, designed to send astronauts back to the moon but cancelled last year by president Barack Obama.

Because much of the technology involved is already developed for operation, the team has planned an initial flight by the end of 2013, a second test flight in 2014 and operational capability in 2015.

‘The Liberty initiative provides tremendous value because it builds on European Ariane 5 launcher heritage, while allowing NASA to leverage the mature first stage,’ said Charlie Precourt, vice-president and general manager of ATK Space Launch Systems.

‘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.

‘This approach allows NASA to utilise the investments that have already been made in our nation’s ground infrastructure and propulsion systems for the Space Exploration Program.’

ATK will supply the launcher’s first stage, a five-segment solid rocket derived from the Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that was successfully flight-tested in October 2009.

As well as adding a fifth segment, ATK has enhanced the propellant grain, provided a larger nozzle opening and upgraded the liner and insulation to meet performance requirements and increase reliability while lowering manufacturing costs.

Astrium, which has three bases in the UK, will work with engine manufacturer Snecma (Safran Group) to provide the second stage based on the liquid-fuelled cryogenic core of the Ariane 5 vehicle powered by the Vulcain2 engine.

The Ariane 5 launcher, operated by Arianespace, has flown more than 40 consecutive successful missions over nearly eight years and has launched more commercial satellites than any other launch vehicle in the world during that time.