NASA Awards $1.8 Billion Contract for Ares I Main Stage
A concept image of Ares I crew launch vehicle.
Credit: NASA/MSFC.

WASHINGTON -- NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) have finalized a no-bid contract worth $1.8 billion to design and develop the main stage of the Ares I rocket that will boost the agency?s planned Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle into orbit for trips to the international space station and eventually the Moon.

The first stage of the Ares I rocket, currently under development at NASA?s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is a five-segment version of the solid-rocket boosters that ATK builds for the space shuttle.

Measuring 164 feet (50 meters) in height and 13 feet (four meters) in diameter, the Ares I first stage will tip the scales at 1,288,912 pounds (630,000 kilograms), with nearly 90 percent of that weight coming from the rubber-like solid propellant that runs up the center of the booster. Taller and more powerful than the twin boosters that helped lift space shuttle Endeavour on its Aug. 8 mission to the International Space Station, Ares I?s five-segment booster will produce 3.6 million pounds of thrust, accelerating the rocket to 4,473 miles (7,200 kilometers) per hour in just 2 minutes before the rocket?s J-2X-powered upper stage takes over to carry Orion the rest of the way to orbit.

The cost-plus contract runs through 2013 and calls for ATK Launch Systems of Brigham City, Utah, to build eight boosters: five that will be used in ground tests starting in 2009 and three that will be used in flight tests beginning in 2012, according to Tom Williams, NASA?s deputy program manager for the Ares I main stage.

In addition, Williams said, ATK will provide two partial boosters for vibration testing and will support an early flight test ? dubbed Ares I-X ? of a four-segment space shuttle solid-rocket booster topped with an inert fifth segment.

After Ares I-X in April 2009, NASA plans to fly its first five-segment Ares I booster in September 2012 on a suborbital trajectory. Approximately six months later, Ares I will conduct its first orbital test flight, carrying an unpiloted Orion capsule into space. The first crewed test flight of Ares and Orion is slated for September 2013. Steve Cooke, director of Marshall?s Exploration Launch Projects office, said Orion would visit the space station during that planned two-week shakeout flight.

ATK was selected to build the Ares I first stage in December 2005 and had been working since then under a provisional contract. NASA and ATK finalized negotiations on long-term contract July 13 and signed the deal Aug. 10 at the U.S. space agency?s headquarters here, NASA officials said.

Production of Ares I main-stage boosters needed for flights beyond the test program will be covered under a separate contract that NASA and ATK will not begin to negotiate until 2009 or 2010, Cooke said. ?That?s down the road a bit,? he said.

Once in service, Ares I is expected to launch twice a year to deliver Orion and its six-person crews to the space station.

NASA also intends to use the five-segment boosters in pairs to help lift Ares V, the massive rocket being planned to launch the lunar landers and other hardware needed to send astronauts to the Moon starting around 2020.

Once those twice-a-year lunar sorties begin, NASA anticipates buying around six flight boosters a year: two for each Ares V mission and one for each Ares I that lifts off. While such lunar missions are still a ways off, Jeff Hanley, NASA?s Constellation program director, said the work NASA is doing on Ares I is laying important ground work for the future.

?The investments we are making today are investments in the program to send astronauts back to the Moon. We are building parts of the Ares V vehicle now, in fact some of the most important parts,? Hanley said. ?So it's part of a long-term set of choices we are making to get us on the path to getting back to the Moon.?

In addition to the solid boosters, the Aries V also will incorporate the J-2X upper-stage engine, which is being developed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif.

Meanwhile, ATK expects to learn by the end of August it will have a major role in developing the Ares I upper stage. ATK is teamed with Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne for the contract; the competing team is led by Boeing NASA Systems of Houston.

That contract, which requires the winning team to use the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to build the upper-stage hardware, is expected to be worth around $900 million.