ATK is making noises about commercializing Ares 1. Unsurprisingly, it’s full of bovine excrement right off the bat:
Ron Dittemore, president of ATK Launch Systems, said the human-rating that led NASA to build the Ares I first stage around the shuttle booster should also be attractive to other customers with “high-value” payloads, including the Defense Dept. and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
“Ares I can deliver humans, can deliver payload to low Earth orbit; it can deliver payload to geosynchronous Earth orbit and beyond – planetary missions – it’s got that much capability,” Dittemore said at the 24th National Space Symposium here. “And what’s unique is that since we’re designing this vehicle with human reliability, proven demonstrated systems, high-value payload customers may see a real attractiveness to putting either DOD or NRO payloads on this launch system.”
First of all, the Shuttle booster is not “human rated.” The Shuttle itself is not, and never has been, human-rated (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I wish that we could expunge the phrase “human rating” from our vocabulary–very few phrases in the space business are as misunderstood and misused by so many as this one). What he means is that the fact that they have been willing to use the SRB for the Shuttle (despite the fact that in the case of Challenger, it destroyed the vehicle and killed the crew) led them to decide that it was reliable enough to use for Ares.
One of the things that people don’t understand about “human rating” is that it is not (just) about reliability, which is the probability of mission success. Human rating is about safety, which is a different thing. It is about the ability to know when the mission is about to go sour, and the ability to safely get away from the vehicle before it does. So while reliability is nice, what’s much more important is warning time and escapability, from the launch pad all the way to orbit (something that the Shuttle has never had, which is why it’s not human rated).
But satellites aren’t going to have a launch escape system, so they don’t care about human rating. What they care about is reliability, and I have seen zero evidence that Ares is going to be more reliable than either Delta IV or Atlas V. Human rating the latter two vehicles will not involve making them more reliable–it will involve putting in the systems needed for adequate failure onset detection (FOSD) and ensuring that they have adequate performance to eliminate abort blackout zones throughout their trajectory (something much more difficult for the Delta than the Atlas, due to to its underpowered second stage). So from a mission assurance standpoint, Ares has nothing to offer to a satellite owner over the current commercial vehicles.
Moreover, there is no discussion of cost. Even if they can get away with not having to amortize development, because the government paid for it and it’s sunk, how much of an army will a NASA-developed/operated vehicle require? History would indicate a pretty large one, particularly given the politics of the situation. So will a commercial launch have to pay its share of the annual fixed operating costs, or will ATK (unfairly) be able to subsidize and undercut the ULA by only paying marginal costs for the launch, and having NASA pay the freight for the rest? And it will have to use the VAB for processing, and the NASA pad for launch. Will NASA be reimbursed for the use of its facilities? How much?
This seems like a huge potential bucket of worms, and all because NASA decided that it had to develop its own launch vehicle.
Is ATK serious? I doubt it. I suspect that this is just a PR move to maintain political support for it among the rubes inside the Beltway who don’t understand these issues, to show that it has applications beyond the NASA lunar (and ISS) missions. Unfortunately, it may work.
[Update a couple minutes later]
Oh, and how could I forget this? How thrilled will the satellite owners be to put their bird on the paint mixer that is the Ares 1, on top of that five-segment solid, when they can get a smooth ride on a Delta or Atlas?