Take a space shuttle booster rocket and make it bigger. Add a capsule NASA originally developed as a potential alternative to its deep-space Orion spaceship. What do you have?
Well, ATK, the company that built the space shuttles' solid rocket boosters, calls it Liberty and has offered the system to NASA as a potential space taxi to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The U.S. space agency currently is reviewing bids from at least four companies for the next phase of its so-called Commercial Crew program. With the retirement of the space shuttles last year, NASA is counting on private industry to break Russia's monopoly on flying crews to the orbiting outpost.
Congress is split on the issue. Last year, it authorized $406 million for the project, enough for NASA to fund initiatives by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin, a startup owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. That was about half what the Obama administration had requested. So far, it's looking like a similar scenario for this year. (One version of the spending bill authorizes $500 million, another $525 million.)
ATK, which teamed with Europe's Astrium, builder of the Ariane 5 rocket, wasn't selected for funding in 2011, but continued working on the project on its own dime.
For its new bid, ATK added a capsule, also called Liberty, which was originally developed for NASA as a prototype composite design for the deep-space capsule Orion. ATK also added Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin to its team.
Depending on funding, NASA plans to award at least two - and possibly more - 21-month contracts, each worth between $300 million and $500 million. The next phase of the work would have companies integrate their spaceships with rockets and develop detailed launch, flight, operations and landing plans.
Contracts are expected to be awarded in August.
Image: Artist's impression of the slender Liberty rocket - towering at twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. Credit: ATK