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A NASA concept image shows the Ares I crew launch vehicle during ascent. Boeing Co. is bidding for production of the orange upper stage of the rocket. It would use United Launch Alliance as a subcontractor, modeling it after a Delta IV propulsion system. ULA's sole production facility is in Decatur.
NASA courtesy art
A NASA concept image shows the Ares I crew launch vehicle during ascent. Boeing Co. is bidding for production of the orange upper stage of the rocket. It would use United Launch Alliance as a subcontractor, modeling it after a Delta IV propulsion system. ULA's sole production facility is in Decatur.

A giant leap for Decatur?
ULA may play role in return to moon

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

The next small step for man could be a giant leap for Decatur if Boeing Co. has its way.

In a bid Boeing announced Wednesday, United Launch Alliance would be a major player in developing the upper stage for the Ares I crew launch vehicle, NASA’s planned replacement for the space shuttle. The project’s goal is to place astronauts on the moon and, eventually, Mars.

ULA’s sole production facility is in Decatur. The joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. employs 650.

NASA plans to award the upper-stage production contract in late August.

“Decatur is supporting the proposal effort with their manufacturing expertise,” ULA spokeswoman Julie Andrews said Wednesday.

She said the impact on employment at the Decatur plant would be minimal, but the plant could play a major role if Boeing wins the bid.

“They have the manufacturing expertise as represented by the engineers in Decatur,” Andrews said. “We don’t know a lot beyond that because now we’re just supporting the Boeing proposal.”

Ares I, which will transport the Orion crew exploration vehicle to low Earth orbit, is part of the nation’s space exploration program that would return astronauts to the moon no later than 2020. NASA’s goal is to use the Ares I to place astronauts in orbit by 2014.

Boeing said ULA’s role would be to provide rocket production expertise as well as experience with the development, operation and production of cryogenic launch systems based on the Delta IV rocket.

“We will bring innovative manufacturing approaches and the best elements of Boeing and our teammates to bear on this critical NASA Constellation Program element,” Jim Chilton, Boeing’s vice president of exploration launch systems, said in a statement. “Our team is composed of industry leaders with experience in their Ares I upper-stage roles. We don’t want to add risk to NASA’s program.”

Ares I is planned as a two-stage rocket topped by the Orion crew vehicle and a launch abort system that would enable the crew to escape in the event of a problem during the launch.

The crew capsule will end its missions by descending to land with a combination of parachutes and either airbags or retrorockets. Water recoveries, such as those used in Apollo flights, are an emergency option.

The reusable first-stage booster would carry the vehicle to low Earth orbit. In mid-flight, the upper stage would ignite, placing the vehicle into a circular orbit.

The upper stage — the stage in which ULA would play a role — would be propelled by a J-2X engine fueled, like the Delta IV, with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

The J-2X is an evolved variation of the engine that launched the Apollo-era Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets.

In addition to the vehicle’s primary mission — carrying crews of four to six astronauts to Earth orbit — Ares I may also use its 25-ton payload capacity to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

NASA also envisions the Ares I placing orbiting payloads in space that can be retrieved by other spacecraft destined for the moon or Mars.

Critics have said NASA should have opted for the Delta IV or Atlas V satellite-launch vehicles rather than starting from scratch with the Ares I. That would have been a coup for Decatur as it is the sole production facility for the Delta IV and soon will be the sole production facility for the Atlas V. Despite near-flawless launch records, NASA concluded a new launch system was safer for a crew-carrying vehicle.

Among other issues, a NASA study group said the solid strap-on boosters and launch trajectories of the Delta IV and Atlas V created crew safety issues. It also cited a risk of hydrogen build-up in the Delta IV.

Huntsville-based SUMMA Technology Inc. would produce the large barrel panels for the upper stage if Boeing wins the contract.

Boeing said its Ares team would be located mainly in Huntsville and New Orleans. NASA will run the upper stage program out of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

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