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August 17, 2012

ATK, Blue Origin - Different tactics, Different Futures for Manned Spaceflight Alternatives

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


ATK (News - Alert) is an old-guard aerospace company, while Blue Origin is a tight-lipped start-up funded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, but both shared the same near-term result in the next phase of NASA's Commercial Crew Program: Zero funding. 

Why do such two different companies share the same status? Why didn't Blue Origin apply for another round of funding? What will both companies do moving forward?

The Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) phase is designed to bring at least two commercial manned spaceflight offerings up to the test flight stage. Boeing (News - Alert) and SpaceX have received "full shares" to bring systems to maturity, while Sierra Nevada is the "half" in the unofficial-but-official "2.5" funding deal to move forward in developing a U.S. flagged manned space system to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by the middle of the decade.

In the previous round of NASA's R&D program for human spaceflight, Blue Origin received almost $26 million in government money while ATK participated with an unfunded proposal around its Liberty rocket in the CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) phase. During CCDev, Blue Origin worked out an agreement for BE-3 rocket engine testing at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, ran a series of wind tunnel tests of Blue Origin's biconic Space Vehicle designed to carry seven people to orbit, and conduced a System Requirements Review (SRR) with NASA to assess the maturity of its capsule design.

Over the summer, ATK ran an extensive PR campaign touting the new and different options for its Liberty system. Liberty, combining a five-segment solid rocket first stage with a liquid-fueled second stage utilizing the first stage from the European ArianeSpace Ariane V rocket, was touted as "the safest, most reliable, most economical commercial space transportation service ever developed" – a bold claim for a system based on technologies that hadn't flown together on a single test flight, much less one that wouldn't fly until 2014.

Blue Origin took the exact opposite approach. It quietly finished up its CCDev milestones, held no press conferences, ran no PR ads or blew into the ear of reporters. According to news reports, Blue Origin didn't even submit a CCiCap proposal.  

I suspect that Blue Origin took an honest look at Boeing and SpaceX's progress toward a system as compared to its own developmental timeline, combine it with the limited prospects for funding, and decided not to waste the time in submitting a proposal they had long odds to win.  

A winning proposal would also put more information out on where Blue Origin is at in terms of technology development – something the secretive company doesn't desire. It wouldn't surprise me that the first time Blue Origin makes an announcement of a manned test flight will be three days before launch at their secret launch pad inside an extinct volcano off the coast of Japan. 

Nobody knows what Blue Origin is doing other than trying to hire still more engineers, and they're better than Apple (News - Alert) at keeping secrets. It’s likely Bezos will fund this project out as far as he can with money out of his own pocket just to keep it out of the rumor mill of the ever-gossipy venture capitalists circuit.

ATK could also continue funding Liberty out of its own pocket or raise private financing in order to complete the project, but it is unlikely given the company's historical dependence upon government contract work. 

Without Uncle Sam as an anchor customer, Liberty is likely to remain a Powerpoint and YouTube (News - Alert) creation.


Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend
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Edited by Braden Becker



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