[ Last in a series of posts about the companies that won and lost in NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) competition ]
Of the four companies that submitted CCiCap proposals deemed technically viable by NASA, ATK’s Liberty system was the odd one out, the only one not receiving a funded agreement. That raises the question: will ATK and its partners, notably EADS Astrium, continue to pursue development of the full system or some subset of it, like the launch vehicle?
Since the announcement a week ago ATK has remained quiet. “ATK and the Liberty Team are disappointed that we were not selected by NASA” for a CCiCap award, the company said in a statement last Friday. “We continue to believe Liberty provides the safest, most cost-effective crew and cargo transportation systems, as well as the fastest path to recover America’s human launch capability and engage the workforce and facilities at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, and others. We look forward to a debriefing from NASA.”
The company’s supporters in Congress have been more vocal, though. “I am disappointed and disheartened by the news that NASA has excluded ATK from the companies” that won CCiCap awards, said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) in a statement. “It was my understanding that ATK’s Liberty proposal ranked very high in technical merit, and was the lowest-risk option,” he added, although NASA has yet to disclose the details of its selection process.
In comments Bishop and his office provided to a local newspaper, the Ogden Standard-Examiner, he suggested political factors may have played a role. “I have been concerned that favoritism may be playing far too prominent a role in NASA’s decision-making process, especially with regard to companies closely tied to key NASA officials,” he said, citing among other factors various visits by NASA leadership to some of the companies that won awards but not to ATK.
On Thursday, in a call with financial analysts to discuss the company’s latest quarterly earnings report, ATK president and CEO Mark DeYoung suggested that Liberty was, at the very least, not a priority for the company going forward, if the company even planned to pursue it. He reiterated on a couple occasions that ATK was “disappointed” in the CCiCap decision. “We offered a safe, mature, affordable solution to NASA, and we’re looking forward to learning more about their decision.”
However, he also said that, unlike its work on the Space Launch System and advanced booster concepts related to it, Liberty was not as high a priority for ATK. “Liberty was a little bit of a longer shot for us, so we hadn’t planned on it, so from that view it should not have any significant financial impact for the company,” he said. “Going forward, we’re going to focus on SLS, we’re going to focus on the advanced booster, we’re going to execute on those programs.” He later said that, with regards to commercial crew, “we were disappointed, we’re moving on.”
ATK officials involved with Liberty had previously indicated that the company would continue its efforts on the program if it didn’t get an award, albeit at a slower pace. DeYoung’s comments hint that progress on Liberty could come at a far slower pace—or possibly not at all.