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Illustration of SNC s Dream Chaser launching atop a ULA Atlas V rocket. Credit: SNC Illustration of SNC's Dream Chaser launching atop a ULA Atlas V rocket. Credit: SNC

Atlas V rocket gearing up for commercial crew

Sen— NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) have completed a review of the modifications needed to ready ULA's Atlas V rocket for human spaceflight.

The rocket, which has a successful track record of unmanned payload launches, is being developed to lift commercial crewships into orbit. Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 and the Dream Chaser being built by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) - both of which have funding awards under NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative - are being lined up to use the rocket as their launch vehicle. 

ULA has been getting guidance and technical assistance from NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev2) Program. NASA's strategy is to help create a private space economy so that it can outsource cargo and crew transport to and from the space station to commercial space companies such as ULA, SNC, SpaceX and Boeing, whilst it concentrates on developing its next deep space rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). 

George Sowers, ULA's vice president of human launch services, said "We have made a great deal of progress toward safe, affordable human spaceflight. This baseline will be used by both Boeing and SNC as they proceed into the CCiCap phase, providing them with the confidence that the flight-proven Atlas V will be ready to safely, reliably and cost-effectively launch."

The unfunded Space Act Agreement set out five milestones for ULA. The Hazard, System Safety and Probabilistic Risk Assessment, which reviewed crew safety during launch and ascent of the rocket, was the fifth and final milestone that completes the agreement.

The work under the CCDev2 agreement moves the Atlas V rocket a step closer to being certified for crewed missions, providing the design criteria and technical foundations for development of an emergency detection and esacpe system needed for any crew carrying rocket.

Illustration of a Boeing CST-100 atop a ULA Atlas V rocket

Illustration of Boeing's CST-100 atop a ULA Atlas V rocket. Credit: Boeing

Ed Mango, who heads the Commercial Crew Program for NASA, said: "The ULA team did an outstanding job outlining how it plans to integrate its launch vehicle with completely different spacecraft designs. We commend ULA for taking on the challenge of human spaceflight, and we look forward to learning more about their innovative and cost-saving solutions as we continue to move forward in developing a crew transportation capability for America."

ULA, formed in 2006, is a 50:50 joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company.

NASA announced in August it was awarding funding and support to three companies developing spacecraft to ferry astronauts - Boeing, SNC and SpaceX. Two out of the three - Boeing and SNC - plan to use the Atlas V. SpaceX is developing a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft, a cargo only version of which is currently berthed with the ISS.

NASA also announced on October 15 that Blue Origin was making progress under its CCDev2 agreement having successfully fired the thrust chamber assembly for its new liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen rocket engine. The engine forms part of Blue Origin's Reusable Booster System (RBS) that will be used to launch the company's biconic-shaped Space Vehicle. Blue Origin, set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is developing craft for orbital and sub-orbital spaceflight.

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