Liberty Reborn or the Future Denied? Orbital ATK’s New EELV Class Rocket

Liberty Rocket Credit: ATK Astium

Liberty Rocket
Credit: ATK Astium

An investor conference call (pdf download) for Orbital ATK which took place on March 1st has shed new, if somewhat puzzling light on Orbital ATK’s plans for a new booster to compete in the USAF’s EELV class against long standing incumbent ULA and recently certified SpaceX.

Call it the rebirth of Ares-1, or perhaps of the patriotically painted Liberty launch vehicle which emerged from the ashes of the Ares-1 to provide last drama in the third round of NASA’s Commercial Crew competition, but by any name the Orbital ATK concept appears to take a firm stance against the tide of history, including some of its own.

Concepts for an American ELV rocket consisting of a solid fueled first stage topped by a liquid fueled second stage date back deep into the space age, but began to seem more practical with the debut of the Space Shuttle and its twin Solid Rocket Boosters. A new, 5 segmented version of the SRB was the basis of Project Constellation’s Ares-1 rocket, which was initially envisioned as having a hydrogen/oxygen second stage powered by a single Space Shuttle Main Engine. After encountering difficulties with the design, particularly with a version of the SSME which could be “air-started,” the space agency switched gears, and began working on developing an updated version of the Saturn V’s highly respected J-2 upper stage engine. Labelled the J2-X, NASA spent more than a billion dollars on the project, which would have also seen it applied to the Space Launch System, before it too was shelved.

As then ATK contemplated a bid on NASA’s Commercial Crew competition, the company put forward a composite version of the Orion capsule to be lofted by the Liberty Launch Vehicle, a flashily painted variant of the Ares-1 which would have seen a second stage engine developed by Astrium and derived from Europe’s Ariane V workhorse commercial booster. Despite a late lobbying campaign, NASA passed on the proposal, and the Liberty quietly returned to history’s bountiful bin of viewgraph only rockets.

That might have been where it stayed if not for the convoluted debate taking place in the U.S. Congress over what to do about American dependence on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine used on the ULA Atlas V for national security payloads being launched under the U.S. Air Force’s EELV program.

A ban on future imports of the RD-180 for national security launches in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea sparked calls, and subsequently funding, for developing an American built replacement in spite of the rather obvious fact that SpaceX had already accomplished much the same with the Falcon 9 EELV class booster. Combined with ULA’s Delta IV series, the nation already had it its disposal the avowed goal of “assured access to space” through two dissimilar booster families. That was at least until United Launch Alliance announced that it was cancelling the hydrogen/oxygen booster due to its unfavorable, but still undisclosed pricing, versus the SpaceX Falcon 9. Instead, it would begin development of the Vulcan booster, featuring a LNG first stage powered by the BE-4 engine being jointly developed with Blue Origin. While not exactly embracing the RLV revolution with unbridled enthusiasm, ULA’s Tory Bruno did note that the company would was updating a long standing proposal to air-recover jettisoned first stage engines for eventual re-use.

That wasn’t all however, last year, Blue Origin held a press conference in Florida to announce that it too is developing a two stage launch vehicle, also which will also be powered by the BE-4. Like the SpaceX Falcon 9, the Blue Origin booster is designed to be partially reusable, a goal which seems suddenly very achievable following recent feats by both NewSpace companies. Notably, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos did not address which markets the new rocket is intended to pursue, performance, nor which it might forego. If is any guide however, the answer may very well be “all of the above.”

So where does a new EELV class launch vehicle from Orbital ATK fit into the mix, particularly considering the fact that the Air Force is still paying ULA a nearly $1 billion per year subsidy predicated on the 12 year old argument that the launch market is too fragile to support more than a single launch provider?

The answer would seem to be that Orbital ATK believes it can field a new booster which can compete at or below current price levels for certain EELV class payloads. Some details on the booster emerged during the conference call.

When asked if it was related to the Ares-I project, Dave Thompson, President and CEO of Orbital ATK responded,

“There’s certainly some important carryover from Ares I with regard to the solid rocket propulsion. It also benefits from and in turn provides benefits to NASA’s space launch system, which is, in a sense, a descendent of the Ares I project and to some other NASA and defense programs as well. So there’s a fair amount of carryover from a prior work that ATK conducted back five years or longer ago.”

Asked about the historical role of the J2-X, he went on to add that:

“The design of our system does include, in most of its specific configurations, a liquid upper stage. And we have studied several, I guess I would say three, engine alternatives for that upper stage. We have a current preferred approach and two alternatives. Again for competitive reasons, I’d prefer not to get into those just yet. But the system does involve liquid upper stage.”

If the Orbital ATK project is a sort of rebirth of the Liberty launch vehicle offering similar performance numbers, it would occupy an interesting slot, coming in significantly over the SpaceX Falcon 9 at 20,000 kg versus 13,150 kg to LEO. The challenge, and it would be a tall order indeed, would be to keep it cost competitive with the Falcon Heavy, which although overqualified for many missions at 53,000 kg to LEO, advertises commercial pricing at $90 million.

Of course, other variations for what is being described as modular family of boosters are possible, and the Vulcain 2 engine represents the high side of possible upper stage engine choices. Other possibilities include the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10, as well as Blue Origin’s BE-3.

Irrespective of its final configuration, the determining factor may be something Orbital ATK has decided to forgo the possibility of altogether. When asked about the advent of reusable rockets, Thompson responded:

“There’s been a great deal of discussion about launch vehicle reusability, particularly over the last six months. I think it’s still too early to say whether in the real world of launch rates and refurbishment costs and payload penalties and so on, that relate to reusability whether it’s going to make economic sense to reuse some or a large part of the launch vehicle. While it may be intuitively appealing to make references to we don’t throw away airplanes and so on, rockets and airplanes are quite different machines. And a past experience with launch vehicle reusability has been mixed at best in terms of achieving sustainable cost reductions. And so I’m a skeptic with regard to many of the claims that have been made for cost reductions related to reusability. And in the case of our specific program, we are designing it to be cost competitive with not only the current pricing, but even somewhat lower pricing that may merge in the future. But you are correct, our system does not contemplate reusability and we will have to wait and see whether that’s a good judgment or not.”


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3 Comments on "Liberty Reborn or the Future Denied? Orbital ATK’s New EELV Class Rocket"

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  1. Art says:

    Isn’t F9-FT in expendable mode able to put closer to 18000Kg – 19000Kg into LEO?

    • Art says:

      I made a mistake. SpaceX lists the F9-FT expendable at 22,800Kg. Looks like Liberty II is destined to be a ‘pork’ rocket.

  2. I wonder if what we’re seeing here, in the ULA skepticism about reusability, is more a reflection of concerns about cannibalization than about technical feasibility. ULA has sunk a lot of investment not just into specific launchers, but into a whole business model that assumes “throw it away each time” (with the exception of SRBs, which might cost almost as much as any liquid fueld alternative after retrieval and refurbishment.) As an incumbent, ULA has a lot of pension liability overhang in its workforce, unlike SpaceX. To render any significant fraction of these employees redundant would incur huge (albeit mostly one-time) early-retirement payout costs. The corporate bond markets might not look too fondly on such a move, if they fear that even after shedding some redundant costs, what remains is still not very competitive. The alternative is special pleading before Congress for more subsidies, and the political environment might become much more hostile about that thing very soon. The shrewdest messaging at this point might very well be to simply propagate FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) over whether any degree of reusability can be economical.

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