Atlas rockets could carry astronauts to space again

It looks like Boeing will be the main competitor for Space X in the race to see what U.S. company will provide the commercial space flight services that NASA eventually plans to rely on.

Space X has its Dragon capsule, and Boeing is developing a new capsule system, called the CST-100. That capsule would ride into space under the power of an Atlas V rocket, an engineering descendant of the Atlas rockets that carried the first four American astronauts to space half a century ago.


  1. Has anyone making these decisions actually played EVE online??
    But really…corporatism in space, how can it fail?

  2. Atlas carried the first four Americans to orbit the Earth, but it was the Redstone booster that carried the first two American astronauts to space, on suborbital missions. Atlas came later, with the orbital flights. 

  3. See, Russian technology works.

    The RD-180 engine of the Atlas V is a scaled down version (about 50% thrust) of the RD-170 engine that the Russians used in the boosters to launch their Buran (Shuttle) Spacecraft.

    That’s roughly where the US level of technology has ended up, after all resources were poured into maintaining the 1970ies technology of the Shuttle.

  4. Pity Orion isn’t viable. I’d like to see it tested just for the sheer mind numbingly Holy Crap factor the plan called for. I mean c’mon. DETONATING NUKES as a propultion method.

    Still. Is good that we at least have SOMETHING in the pipes? Sure it’s back to Apollo Era capsules and rockets, but the russians have been using Soyuse for fourty years (give or take a little.) So why not?

    1. Orion may be awesome, but it’s only really feasible once you’re already far, far away from Earth. Otherwise you’ve got a) all the problems of open-air nuclear weapons testing and b) a signle nuclear explosion in orbit could potentially take out *every* satellite up there.

    1. How scalable was Saturn? Since I only can think of Saturn V and it’s giant towering collum of Fire to the moon (or with a little modification… to Mars!)

      If it was able to be scaled back to ‘put really heavy things in orbit’ we would have pretty much, as I understand it, the constillation program (that Obama scrapped/said was cost ineffective…i think.)

      1. There were smaller Saturns, IIRC.

        Given the SRB and eternal fuel tank technology from the Shuttle , it isn’t clear that we’d still want to go back to the ginormous cryogenic-fuel main engines of the Saturn 5’s first stage, at least not for that purpose. But they really were very pretty.

        I remember the (’64, I think?)  World’s Fair where they displayed a set of (real? mockup?) Saturn engines mounted in a mockup of the bottom 20 feet or so of a Saturn V’ body. Film and video doesn’t do justice to their size.

        1. BTW, a comment on the times: It was never officially admitted, but it was pretty commonly assumed that there was a nuclear warhead available for the Saturn V. Just In Case.

        2. Given the SRB and eternal fuel tank technology from the Shuttle , it isn’t clear that we’d still want to go back to the ginormous cryogenic-fuel main engines of the Saturn 5’s first stage

          The Saturn 5’s F1 engines used RP-1 kerosene as a fuel.  Only the oxidizer, liquid oxygen, was cryogenic.  The Space Shuttle Main Engines are fully cryogenic; they use liquid hydrogen as fuel and liquid oxygen as oxidizer.

          RP-1/LOX semi-cryogenic engines are actually quite popular.  They’re currently used in (among other things) the Russian Soyuz launcher, the SpaceX Falcon rockets, and the Atlas V mentioned here.

          As for the SRBs, here’s hoping that no one will ever again be stupid enough to launch manned flights on solid-fuel rockets with rubber O-rings, just so they can claim they’re ‘reusable’.

      2. The real question is what really heavy things you need to put in orbit that can’t be sent in two or more parts and assembled in orbit.  We need to find a use for the Space Station that can’t be subbed out to orbiting satellites and garage/port seems as viable as anything else.

        1. > The real question is what really heavy things you need to put in orbit
          > that can’t be sent in two or more parts and assembled in orbit.

          There is a huge cost in assembling things in orbit.  It has taken the combined launch capabilities of the US, Russia and Europe an entire decade to build the ISS.  Whereas two Saturn Vs could have completed this task in a single afternoon.

  5. Atlas V rockets are actually a product of the United Launch Alliance company. ULA formed out of a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, however the Atlas line of rockets are a Lockheed Martin technology, not Boeing. Boeing’s original rocket line (also now owned by ULA) is the Delta.

  6. Yeah, I too miss the Saturn V. I’m told we couldn’t build one now if we wanted to, except by redesigning from scratch; too many of the design details got lost.

    I *still* haven’t seen a launch in person. My own darned fault. And it’s going to be a while before we do another heavy launch.

  7. See the Saturn I, (  In any case, the obstacle is not that plans are missing per se, but that all the tooling was destroyed.  The reality of getting a large rocket engine to work properly is that the plans are not the only thing needed to get any kind of reliability, and the F-1 were notably difficult to eliminate vibration problems from (in fact they never were completely fixed, though no rockets were lost it was a damn close thing on a number of launches).  To rebuild them would basically mean starting from scratch in terms of test stand work, and realistically there are better ways to get that kind of thrust than recreating the F-1 nowadays.

    And a Saturn V warhead?  That is one of the more ridiculous things I’ve heard…  Think about the kind of launch support these things needed, including the long payload integration, roll-out, and fueling on the pad.  Then consider that there were no MIRVs in the era we’re talking about, so you’d be using a rocket with 100 and some tons of capacity to lob a single bomb (or more likely just get bombed while on the pad).  Bombs, especially American ones, are just not very big or heavy.  Suffice it to say there wasn’t one, and the Saturns would have been in no way effective as missiles.

  8. As  @boingboing-e23b16e83342d08d0d3ef4eeed9d3299:disqus  notes, the Atlas V shares little more than a name with the Atlases of the early American manned space program.  Here’s Wikpedia on the subject:

    The newest version of Atlas, the Atlas V, is an Atlas in name alone as it contains little Atlas technology. It no longer uses balloon tanks nor 1.5 staging, but incorporates a rigid framework for its first stage booster much like the Titan family of vehicles. The rigid fuselage is heavier, but easier to handle and transport, eliminating the need for constant internal pressure.
    Ironically, given Atlas’s origin as a military ICBM weapon against the Soviet Union/Russia, the Atlas III and Atlas V use Russian-designed/built NPO Energomash RD-180 engines. These engines are now prepared for license production by Pratt and Whitney company in the US.

    Interestingly, the first stage of the current generation of Soyuz rockets, which launch the Soyuz and Progress capsules that currently deliver astronauts and cargo to the ISS, is a direct engineering descendant of the original R-7 rocket, first launched in 1957, which was the basis for the Soviet Union’s first ICBM (1957), their first satellite launch (Sputnik, 1957) and their first manned orbital launch (Vostok, 1960).

    Every Soviet and Russian manned space expedition ever launched was launched by an R-7 family rocket.  The first stages have all been powered by variants of the same RD-107 engine.

  9. Having said that. Is there anything we can take away from the shuttle program experiance and apply to whatever comes next? Yes yes it was a great white elephant that was a victum of meddling government hopes of nabbing russian spy sattilites and overoptimistic launch schedualling but…. what has it done RIGHT that we can apply?

  10. As I have understood it, the SSMEs (Space shuttle Main Engines) are quite good, and could plausibly be reused in something.

    As a program, it has given the US much more experience in manned operations in LEO, though arguably that’s not so much about how you get the people up there as what they do there. Some of the operations they’ve done (e.g. the Hubble fix) would have been very hard to do in any other way, mind you.

  11. Very technically it wasn’t a Saturn V.  It was a Saturn INT-21.  Same rocket, different name.

  12. The main problem with re-creating the Saturn V isn’t the technology, but the market. There simply isn’t any market for super-heavy boosters. There has been no (zero) commercial demand for boosters heavier than the Proton-M and Arianne 5, which lift less than 1/4th as much into LEO as what the Saturn V could do. Yes, the ISS could have been built with two Saturn V lifts, but the cost of maintaining or recreating the Saturn V program for that alone would have been far higher than using multiple commercial rockets to do the job. The only reason the Atlas V Heavy proposal was ever floated was because it would be strap-ons to the existing Atlas V core, rather than an entirely new rocket — and even that proposal, which would lift less than 1/3rd as much into LEO as the Saturn V, has found no market. 

    In any event, the Atlas V will lift a bit more into orbit than Soyuz so there’s no technological reason why it couldn’t lift a slightly-bigger-than-Soyuz sized space capsule into orbit. It certainly made no sense to have Constellation’s Shuttle-engine-based booster when Atlas V and its much cheaper Russian technology is available. Constellation was a program that was a solution looking for a problem, not a cost-effective way to get men into orbit… to do that, you have to share a booster with commercial space programs. Like this Atlas V proposal does.

    1. “It certainly made no sense to have Constellation’s Shuttle-engine-based booster when Atlas V and its much cheaper Russian technology is available. Constellation was a program that was a solution looking for a problem, not a cost-effective way to get men into orbit.”
      Agree 100%.

      Question for any experts out there: does the Delta rocket have the potential to be human-rated as well?

      1. Question for any experts out there: does the Delta rocket have the potential to be human-rated as well?

        I am not really an expert but I think a lot of man rating comes down to a few simple factors. First: how reliable is the launch vehicle overall? The Shuttle had a 2% chance of failure which is fairly easy to improve on for a long lived design. The second part is in the communication interfaces between payload and launcher. If the launch vehicle develops a fault the human payload needs to know about it ASAP. If the human payload wants to abort the launch they need some control over the launcher. Interfaces like this can be added to an existing design.

  13. It gets even better. The RD-107 itself is little more than a somewhat improved version of the German V-2 (rocket) engine, that was mass produced in WW2. They did use a much more powerful pump to pump fuel into the four burning chambers (instead of just one for the V-2) and of course they used kerosene instead of ethanol (which the Germans had to use because of fuel shortages).

    It’s seriously old technology.

  14. Not a bad thing! Old technology means it’s been worked on, refined, and TESTED for years. Look at Soyuz. With a few upgrades and maybe make it a bit bigger to take advantage of the lift capacity and you get something based on old reliable tech with a few new added capabilities thrown in the bag.

    As for Constellation. I like it. It wasn’t cost effective and I’m not sure what itwas good for but By Bob it was ambitious.

  15. Interesting. Unmanned drone that can go orbital then glide back in.

    Dagnabbit. Why do I see this as  predator/Reaper drone IN SPACE?

  16. Dumb question: in the photo, what are those four smokestack-like things connected by cables at the top? Lightning rods, maybe?

  17. Rockets are great…for launching missiles, and were usefull back when they were what we had at the beginning of the space race in the cold war, and which we used very well back then to learn how to operate in space but we now know a lot more and should be ready to go to the next step. 
    Project Orion, which used repurposed nuclear bombs (contained within a very strong and resistant chamber and using a very massive pushing plate to propel a really massive payload) while possible was politically unpopular (to say the least), but going large scale with the Truax Sea Dragon concept would have been a good step but wasn’t taken for reasons that have more to do with our leadership than with technology.
     Imagine launching systems on the scale of cruise ships, built at coastal shipyards and then floated like oil derricks and other large scale engineered projects (like the secitons of the newly built SF Bay Bridge) instead of as they are now, in dozens of different congressional districts and then carried around on the interstate for eventual assembly (so they had to remain somewhat small in scale), where we should have systems large enough to launch payloads the size of hotels instead of school busses, with the consequent economy of scale (fuel for hundreds of dollars per pound instead of tens of thousands per pound as it is now)  that is far more appropriate to what we need in space, real space and not just near earth orbit. Those fantastic rotating space stations we saw in our early are not just dreams but are fairly accurate designs if were to get beyond the narrow confines that our current approach has resulted in bringing us…so now a space station needs dozens and dozens of service flights at incredible costs per launch instead of just one a year or so and which provides us an accessible and permanent station with rotational capability so that we can simulate gravity, and massive enough so that we can be shielded from cosmic rays, and from which we can build and launch the kinds of designs that are truly scaled and appropriate for further exploration and exploitation of space. I hope that  a revitalized and unleashed  industry applying science and engineering on a scale that NASA and the DoD were not likely to pursue will in the near future be taking the steps to get us to where we could have been 30 years ago and really to where we must be if we are really going to become the space faring civilization that I hope we are destined to become. Otherwise, we’ll just sit here until the civilization destroying cosmic impactor with our name already on it arrives and gives us all the sort of day from hell we should rightfully be trying to avoid…cheers.

  18. I was at the #NASATweetup for the Juno launch this week, and we asked Dr. Andrew Aldren (Buzz’s son!) from ULA a bunch of the questions asked in the comments above.  2 quick interesting things:

    1) ULA is beginning the process of “Human Testing” the Atlas V – mostly they need to build a safety system on the rocket which will communicate with the capsule in case there are problems in flight that require ejection, etc…

    2) They have about a 3-year supply of the Russian RD-180 engines at any time.  They have discussed building a US version, and feel that they could within a 3-year window if something political stopped us from using the RD-180s, but its hard to make a case (business and otherwise) for walking away from something that works so well. 

    BTW, Aldren was incredibly friendly and intelligent, and truly excited to speak to us about the future of space travel.  Seemed like a great guy!

  19. A minor factual correction to the article – the Atlas V is the engineering descendant of the Atlas rocket that carried the first four Americans to _orbit_, namely John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper.  Two other Americans preceded these four to space, namely Alan Shepard and Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, both of whom rode another unrelated vehicle, the Redstone rocket.

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