NASA has started to take steps towards filling its Space Shuttle void as it announces a new partnership with a private firm to launch a new commercial rocket mission.

NASA has teamed up with Alliant TechSystems (ATK) to develop and launch the Liberty rocket system that will eventually send astronauts to the International Space Station.

ATK signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) that enables NASA and the Liberty program office to provide technical interaction for the launch system during the Preliminary Design Review phase of the program.

This SAA enables us to exchange information with NASA and receive valuable insight as we develop our fixed-price commercial crew vehicle and prepare it for test flight as early as 2014, said Kent Rominger, ATK vice president and program manager for Liberty. This helps us to ensure that we provide the safest, most reliable, cost-effective and capable launch vehicle for crew transport.

The launch system has already been under way for more than a year and ATK will be providing the system with a human-rated five-segment solid rocket motor as the first stage. According to ATK liberty has the capability to lift 44,000 pounds to low-Earth-orbit, the highest pounds to orbit of any other vehicle currently working under commercial agreements.

As the SAA agreement stands NASA is not expected to pay ATK at this point but once the Liberty rocket is up and running and ready to send astronauts up to the International space station, the ATK is hopeful that NASA will cover the costs, MSNBC reported.

With this SAA we believe NASA will benefit from gaining insight into the various systems we are developing, and we can benefit from the feedback, said Rominger. In the end we hope to offer a commercial solution to NASA, the Department of Defense and other commercial human spaceflight programs.

Rominger added that the group would be looking for additional funding outside of the NASA and Astrium collaboration as a means of speeding up the process.

ATK is an aerospace, defense, and commercial products company with operations in 22 states, Puerto Rico, and internationally, and revenues of approximately $4.8 billion.