(Sen) - A bold new bid to win the NASA contract to ferry astronauts and cargo into space was made this week just as the cash-strapped agency faced demands to settle the contest soon.
The attempt is being made by commercial company ATK (Alliant Techsystems), based in Utah, with the unveiling of a complete transportation system called Liberty to replace the Space Shuttle and end dependence on Russia to reach the International Space Station.
Their campaign was launched with much fanfare for a spacecraft that would use existing technologies developed for NASA's once-launched Ares rocket as well as Europe's highly successful Ariane designs.
A slick presentation, backed by veteran astronauts, promises to use existing faciities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to build its hardware. Their bid is supported by world leaders in spacecraft construction Lockheed Martin and Astrium.
Liberty's rocket had already been announced as a potential vehicle to lift a crewed capsule. But now ATK have added their own design of crewed spacecraft to fly on top of it, including a launch abort system. They are aiming for a test flight in 2014 and operations to begin a year later.
ATK's powerful campaign comes as budget cuts look set to force NASA to stop supporting an open contest between commercial companies to carry crews and cargoes into space and to pick a winner now.
A House of Representatives report by the Committee on Appropriations set out how it believes NASA should spend its cash. It says that the current total estimated cost of the commercial crew development is too high at $4,868,000,000, particularly when the US only has a few more years of commitment to the International Space Station.
The report also says that there are insufficient safegards to protect the government's interests in space systems developed with Federal money if companies leave the programme to do their own thing.
It believes its concerns would be addressed if a single competitor is picked for NASA support now, or at most a main commercial partner and a second small award to a back-up partner.
The report's recommendation is an approach that is aso being backed by the commanders of three missions to the Moon, Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), Eugene Cernan (Apollo 17), and James Lovell (Apollo 13).
At first glance, this might appear to be good news for SpaceX. They are well ahead in the game and their Dragon spacecraft is set to be the first privately built spacecraft to visit the ISS after it makes an unmanned test launch on May 19.
Liberty's Composite Crewed Module is assembled. Credit: ATK
SpaceX has also successfully completed an important evaluation of a prototype Dragon spacecraft designed to carry people into orbit. NASA astronauts and engineers carried out a series of tests to determine whether the layout will allow astronauts to move around effectively in the vehicle.
But it is thought that there are US politicians who want to see the contract go to an established aerospace company such as Boeing. And the major companies backing Liberty must make theirs a strong bid too.
Kent Rominger, vice president and program manager for Liberty, said: "Our goal in providing Liberty is to build the safest and most robust system that provides the shortest time to operation using tested and proven human-rated components.
"Liberty will give the U.S. a new launch capability with a robust business case and a schedule that we expect will have us flying crews in just three years, ending our dependence on Russia."
Rominger said that if NASA ended backing for Liberty, development would still continue though at a slower pace. Many of the competitors in NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program will also continue regardless of whether they are picked as they are also aiming for another prize - to be involved in the emerging market of space tourism.
Last night SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace announced that they have agreed to begin an international marketing operation to offer rides on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to visit Bigelow private "hotels" orbiting the Earth.