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NASA's scrapped Ares 1 rocket could be resurrected for commercial spaceflight


Conception of the Liberty rocketWhen President Obama proposed in 2010 that NASA abandon the line of Ares rockets it was developing to return astronauts to the moon, many feared that U.S. manned spaceflight was going back to square one.

It now appears that some of the groundwork laid in planning and testing one of those canceled rockets may be put to good use. Obama has proposed that the commercial-spaceflight industry step in for NASA, which instead of directing the assembly and operation of its own rockets would hire private companies as space taxi operators to ferry astronauts to orbit. As numerous firms assemble bids to deliver launch services to NASA, Ares technology has been resurrected as part of a proposed U.S.–European hybrid rocket called Liberty.

The first stage of the rocket, built by the American aerospace firm ATK, would be based on the Ares 1 rocket that was in development and testing when Obama effectively pulled the plug on the program. (Ares 1, in turn, was based on components from the space shuttle, as depicted above.) A prototype rocket called Ares 1-X completed a successful flight test in 2009. The second stage of Liberty, a version of the engine that powers the European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rockets, would come from the European firm Astrium.

The crew capsule that would ride atop those two rocket stages remains unspecified, but Liberty would have enough muscle to carry any capsule now in the works, according to a February 8 press release from ATK:

Liberty would be a two stage launcher able to deliver 44,500 pounds to the International Space Station orbit, which would give it a launch capability to carry any crew vehicle in development. Both stages were designed for human-rating since inception and would enable unmatched crew safety. Since Liberty uses qualified, proven, and reliable systems, the team has planned an initial flight by the end of 2013, a second test flight in 2014, and operational capability in 2015.

ATK and Astrium are going after funds from NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program, which is meant to kickstart the commercial spaceflight industry in the hopes of expediting a replacement for the space shuttle, set to retire later this year. Among several other companies pursuing funds from the same program is the start-up firm SpaceX, led by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, which tested its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule in December.

Liberty diagram: ATK/PR Newswire


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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