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NASA inks deal for Shuttle replacements

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NASA has signed a $1.8 billion contract with Utah-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) for "design, development, testing, and evaluation of the first stage of the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles." Ares I and V will replace the Space Shuttle fleet as NASA's primary means of getting people and stuff into earth orbit.

The deal, announced on Friday, includes delivery of five ground static test motors, two ground vibration test articles and four flight test stages. NASA doesn't get any boosters to use under this deal: the operational rockets will be subject to a seperate contract.

ATK was seen by NASA as the only company which could develop of the first stage of the Ares I crew launch vehicle. Ares I will use solid-fuel rockets to launch humans into orbit, and the current space shuttle strap-on booster is the only solid rocket made in America rated for firing people rather than just kit.

The first stage of the Ares I astronaut-carrying launcher will be a five-segment solid rocket booster based on the four-segment design used for the shuttle. The second stage will be a J-2X liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen engine with a new upper stage fuel tank. The Orion crew exploration vehicle will ride to low Earth orbit with as many as six astronauts atop this stack.

The planned Ares V bulk lifter will deliver machinery and spaceships into orbit, including the vessels which will take people back to the Moon and on to Mars under current plans. Ares V's mighty first stage will mount five RS-68 liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen engines mounted below a larger version of the shuttle's external tank, with two five-segment, solid-propellant rocket boosters strapped on for extra poke. The upper stage will use the same J-2X engine as the Ares I.

NASA says a return to throwaway rocket stacks will be more reliable, affordable and flexible than the Shuttles, whose orbiter spaceplane segment is re-usable but expensive to maintain and often plagued by technical and safety problems. Others have characterised the move as a retrograde step for launch technology, saying that NASA should move forward with some blue-sky, truly reusable scheme such as rocket/scramjet spaceplanes.®

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