Could the Atlas V carry astronauts?

NASA and ULA say they'll cooperate on studying whether humans could someday fly to space on a big utility rocket.

NASA and the United Lauch Alliance — the joint space venture of two little mom-and-pop companies called Boeing and Lockheed Martin — have agreed to share information going forward as they study whether one of the military’s workhorse rockets could eventually carry humans, the Orlando Sentinel reports. That could mean astronauts might use a version of the same rocket that carries “payloads,” i.e. spy satellites, for the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as other satellites for the military.

Wrote Sentinel reporter Mark Matthews:

The new contract, which does not come with money, allows NASA to trade data with ULA as the company examines how it could safely fly astronauts aboard the Atlas V — a rocket with about two dozen launches under its belt that NASA and the Pentagon have used for unmanned payloads since 2002.

“ULA looks forward to continued work with NASA to develop a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability …” said George Sowers, vice president for business development at ULA, in a statement.

He said that under a best-case scenario, ULA could have an Atlas V ready to launch astronauts by mid-decade. Studies of the potential to launch humans aboard an Atlas V largely are expected to be completed by years-end, according to ULA.

For more than a year, President Barack Obama has pushed NASA to rely on commercial rockets to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station once the shuttle era is over.

The agreement between NASA and ULA, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is a sign that industry is transitioning to this new line of thinking. It also will put ULA in direct competition with SpaceX, an upstart company from California that has led the charge for NASA to use commercial companies, rather than government rockets, to ferry astronauts to the station.

Matthews goes on to write that NASA officials have looked before at the possibility of using the Atlas V to carry humans, but preferred instead to try to pursue different space vehicles as part of their now-cancelled Constellation program.