SPECIAL REPORT

NASA Sace Shuttle prospects beyond 2010

Clouds of concern surround space agency program for replacing US national icon.


Orion space capsule mockup heads to its temporary home in a hangar at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton VA. Later this year a full-size structural model will be jettisoned off a simulated launch pad at the US Army White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Shuttle-C-part of a NASA proposal of the 1980s and 90s to transform the Shuttle launch stack into a dedicated unmanned cargo launcher-"has been studied for a long time and it could carry out the cargo missions of the lander and the translunar injection stages," he contends. "The option of using the Shuttle-C for the cargo means we don't need to develop a heavy lift," Aldrin continues, "and if we don't need an Ares 5, it's questionable if we need an Ares 1."

For the redundant crew access, he suggests, the Atlas V could fly with a lifting body called the HL20 [a lifting body spaceplane concept studied for manned orbital missions in the 1980s and 90s at NASA's Langley Research Center] or a DARPA-developed Boeing rocket, the X37B, scheduled to fly in early December.

"Both offer opportunities for advancing spacecraft the way we should be advancing them-to a lifting body and runway landing capability, instead of landing them in the oceans." Another obvious option is to stay the course. But to close the looming gap with that option, NASA would still need a substantial infusion of money-or would have to postpone retirement of its 3 Space Shuttles. "And that's not a good option," says Sabathier.

"The Shuttle costs $4-5 billion a year to operate, and it's crippling any new development in the American space program." Moreover, the shuttles are old, having already provided service way past their prime 10-year planned lifetimes.

Just before the Labor Day weekend, agency officials confirmed that NASA is now studying what it would take to postpone the retirement until Orion begins operational flight in 2015.

Liberator in the wings?

A dark horse candidate-by some reckonings the most likely liberator-is emerging from the private space sector.

In its aim "to change the paradigm by developing a family of launch vehicles which will ultimately reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of 10," SpaceX, founded by PayPal Cofounder Elon Musk, is developing a series of Falcon rockets, including a heavy lifter called Falcon 9.

Orion spacecraft approaches the International Space Station in Earth orbit.

While these rockets have suffered their share of mishaps, no-gos and almost-gos as well as snickers from the space industrial complex, Musk is confident SpaceX will work out all the issues and Falcon will help ease the gap. NASA is already a client. "As far as cargo transfer to ISS and back, there will be no gap," Musk says.

"SpaceX will demonstrate that capability under our current NASA agreement before the Shuttle retires. There is also an option in our NASA agreement to upgrade the F9/ Dragon system for crew," he adds. "If NASA exercises that option in the next few months, we can demonstrate crew transport by late 2011.

The system is essentially the same between cargo and crew, apart from the addition of an escape rocket." Amid rumblings that NASA will miss its publicly stated goal of a launch by 2015, officials have said repeatedly that the agency is committed to Ares, that $7 billion in contracts have been awarded, and that progress is being made.

"But NASA has not developed a space vehicle in many years," says Sabathier. "Workforce retirement has significantly eroded government capabilities within NASA's rocket science teams."

And with no real competition in the so-called old boys' network that is the government's space industry, there is no challenge to break through with new technologies or provide a reasonably-priced product.

One retired Shuttle commander-pilot who has joined the private sector was less diplomatic. As he sees it, NASA and the big contractors are conducting "PowerPoint engineering" instead of creating "real rocket science."

According to Logsdon, the relevant question now is what the next President and the next Congress will decide are the guiding goals for the US future in space. He adds, "Then the question is whether NASA as it is now organized and proceeding is on the right path toward the future." Whatever happens, almost everyone agrees that it needs to happen soon.

"We have lost a lot of time," says Aldrin. "The gap is well nigh upon us." A J S Rayl is a science writer who focuses on space science and flight. Her work has appeared in numerous national magazines. She also authored Lindbergh, the official publication honoring the 75th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight.

A J S Rayl is a science writer who focuses on space science and flight. Her work has appeared in numerous national magazines. She also authored Lindbergh, the official publication honoring the 75th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight.

 

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