NASA’s Re-Launch: Old Tech is New Again, With an Eye on Private Space Travel Biz

The Shuttle and the Ares I rocket are in the mix, as NASA looks to salvage once-ditched ideas.

Liberty ATK rocket


NASA has plans to transmogrify abandoned tech into new ways to reach space through private ownership. We’re not talking small tech here, either: The Shuttle and the Ares I rocket are part of the project.

The Ares I rocket was one of the cornerstones of the now-shelved Constellation project that would’ve taken humans back to the Moon, and then on to Mars–it would’ve been the crew ferry vehicle that took astronauts in their capsule up to rendezvous with the large spacecraft hauled into orbit on a giant Ares V heavy-lift rocket. It was based on core Space Shuttle tech, and it actually flew–with great success–as an experimental rocket carrying a dummy capsule in the dying days of Constellation.

Now U.S.-based Alliant Techsystems has a plan to partner with Astrium, a European firm that builds key rocket components for the Ariane 5 series of launchers, and re-awaken the Ares I project as a privately owned, man-rated launch system.

The new project, renamed Liberty (partly in homage to the Project Mercury capsule which made Gus Grissom the third person in space) would actually be cheaper than NASA’s original propositions for Ares I because instead of requiring a ground-up design for the upper stage and capsule, it would re-use Ariane 5’s first designs–a system that’s already seen 41 consecutive successful launches. The lower segment would remain unchanged from Ares designs, and make use of a 5-segment solid rocket booster that’s already in final testing since it was developed from the Space Shuttle’s successful 4-segment system–built, conveniently, by Alliant.

As well as adding valuable jobs back to a region that’s suffered job losses at the end of the Constellation program, Liberty could also fly very soon (tests in 2013; flights in 2015) and, with efforts from SpaceX and Orbital Tech, help bridge the gap in manned space flight from the U.S. before the arrival of next-gen NASA rockets. It also makes a large amount of economic sense, resulting in a return on investment from millions of already-spent NASA dollars.

Meanwhile, the United Space Alliance–a private firm spun-off from earlier NASA businesses, and the chief contractor-operator of the Space Shuttle Program–has also proposed to fly the Space Shuttle as a privately managed launch system after the official government program ends this year. The U.S. is suggesting ditching plans to mothball Atlantis and Endeavour, the two newest of the remaining Shuttle orbiters, and says it could fly them twice a year for a cost of just $1.5 billion, which is less than half the $3 billion NASA had in its budget to run the Shuttle program for 2010.


The move would give America extended Shuttle-like operations for several years–offering launch and recovery services that are unmatchable. The only issue is that $1.5 billion would represent a significant chunk of government cash that could be better spent on developing this future tech–and in funding the nascent commercial space biz.

Both plans represent something novel for the government space industry: recycling. That wasn’t the case when the Apollo program ended and much of its technology was just abandoned, and tools and engineering expertise were quickly lost–though some was taken into the Space Shuttle program. When the U.K. government canceled its Black Arrow launch system in 1971, the equipment, facilities, tooling and even notebooks and research were deliberately destroyed.

To read more news like this, follow Fast Company on Twitter: Click here.


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.