Vying to build the spaceship of tomorrow Competitors: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International are competing to build a space vehicle to replace the costly shuttle.

June 26, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The countdown is on for the start of a new space race.

By Monday, NASA is scheduled to select a design from one of three of the nation's aerospace giants competing to build the next generation spaceship.

It will be the first attempt by the United States to build a new rocket transportation system since the space shuttle a quarter-century ago, and this time NASA is reaching for the stars.

Its goals are to build a launch vehicle that can be used over and over again without replacing major components and to reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit by at least a factor of 10 compared with today's shuttle.

The space agency wants the new rocket to be built by private companies, using their own money, and wants it operated on an airline-type schedule.

There is even talk of a space tourism business, in which the rich would be able to experience the thrills and sights shared by John Glenn, Yuri Gagarin and fewer than 600 other space voyagers around the world.

Three of the nation's biggest aerospace companies, including Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., are vying for the winner-takes-all contract to develop the X-33, a scaled-down test version of a reusable, single-stage, unpiloted rocket expected to eventually replace the costly shuttle.

Each of the competitors has taken a different approach.

Lockheed Martin is proposing a wedge-shaped lifting body that stirs memories of Han Solo's craft in the "Star Wars" movies.

It is powered by a linear aerospike rocket engine that is shaped like a harmonica.

The craft would blast off like a rocket and land on a runway.

Lockheed Martin would build the craft at its Skunk Works development center in Palmdale, Calif. The initial design of the lifting body concept dates to the 1960s, and the work was done by engineers at the company's Middle River complex.

McDonnell Douglas Corp. takes a page from the Buck Rogers comics with a plan for a bullet-shaped ship that would take off and land vertically.

Its design is based on its experimental Clipper Graham launch vehicle, which earlier this month demonstrated a quick turnaround between flights. On June 8, the craft lifted off for a short flight only 26 hours after completing a prior test flight.

Rockwell International Corp. is proposing a winged vehicle similar to the space shuttle that it already makes. Like the shuttle, it would take off vertically and land like an airplane.

"We're excited," said James Cast, a spokesman at NASA's headquarters. "All three proposals are good, and in a perfect world, if money was not a problem, we would do all three."

Money is not only a factor, it is the burning force behind the new program. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said the ultimate goal of the reusable launch vehicle program is to dramatically cut the cost of space travel.

It costs $10,000 a pound to put a payload into orbit via the shuttle. NASA's objective is to reduce that to $1,000 a pound. Rockwell is saying the cost may eventually drop to $300 a pound.

Goldin has made the reusable launch vehicle a top priority. With the emergence of European and Asian space launch systems over the past two decades, the United States has gone from having a near monopoly in the business to less than 30 percent of the global launch market.

The job of the new spaceship is to reverse this trend. NASA will be a partner on the X-33, a smaller scale model of the reusable launch vehicle to be built after the turn of the century.

The space agency has budgeted $941 million to help pay for the development of the test vehicle that is scheduled for its maiden flight in 1999.

"After that, the winning contractor is on its own," Cast said. "This is a radical change for NASA. It represents a completely different way of doing business at NASA."

He explained that, instead of coming up with plans for a certain size rocket that would do certain things and then sending out requests for proposals from aerospace companies to build it, NASA is letting companies dictate the rocket's design.

As things stand, the winning contractor can't expect help from the government in developing the full-scale reusable launch vehicle. And that could abort the mission, according to at least one top aerospace analyst.

Companies competing for the X-33 contract have estimated that it would cost $5 billion to $8 billion, or more, to build the full-scale reusable launch vehicle that would eventually replace the shuttle.

"That's a big investment for a company when it might have to wait 10 years, or more, before they see a return," said Paul H. Nisbit, president of JSA Research in Newport, R.I.

"This is a risky business for the contractors," said Nisbit. He added that if NASA doesn't help finance the development of the full-scale rocket, the investment in the X-33 could amount to "pouring money down a rathole."

"I'm not sure it would go beyond the development stage, without some assistance from NASA," Nisbit said.

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