|The Liberty launch vehicle combines the proven systems from NASA's space shuttle fleet and |
Europe's Ariane 5 expendable rocket. This graphic shows how they combine into the new
ATK-Astrium Liberty rocket. CREDIT: ATK
I'm glad to see that the billions of dollars and thousands of hours of hard work already poured into Orion and Ares may not have been for naught, but I have reservations about the frankenstein nature of Liberty. Rand Simberg, in a great summary of the program, pointed out that using the Ariane V as a second stage (rather than as a first stage, as it has been used by the ESA) will mean coordinating in-flight ignition of the very complex combustion engine. The difficulty of pulling this off is one of the reasons that the Space Shuttle's SSME was abandoned by NASA's Constellation team for the J2-X.
I also can't imagine that integrating 3 different rocket stages, built by three different companies, will yield an elegant, cost-effective, or scalable result. The Ariane 5 brings 15 years of ESA heritage technology with it, the Ares rocket undoubtedly possesses the marks of 60+ years of NASA history, and the Orion capsule is being developed by Lockheed Martin, which has its own hefty share of heritage. The plan greatly undervalues the benefits of in-house design. SpaceX, for example, built their entire system (rocket and capsule) from scratch in-house. The mechanical engineers building the Falcon engines eat lunch with the electrical engineers designing the Dragon capsule and the systems engineers building the operational plans (I saw this with my own eyes when I visited SpaceX headquarters in 2010). While an ATK systems engineer will have three sets of clumsy and likely incomplete documentation to sift through, and none of the original designers to help with the task, a SpaceX engineer who wants to know why something was built a certain way merely has to find the person who designed it and ask. ATK's kludged-together rocket might be cheap and fast now, but I doubt that it will be scalable or easily updated in the long-term.
In any case, it is likely that Liberty - which will require support from the Ares team - will receive support from members of Congress who championed Constellation and would like to see those jobs return to their districts. It will be interesting to see how Liberty changes course once it enters the political sphere.