Boldest space mission yet New shuttle: Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin wins contract that advances privatization.

July 08, 1996

OF ALL THE experiments in space exploration, this nation may have begun the most daring Tuesday with the awarding of a revolutionary contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. to build a new version of the space shuttle. More exciting than the company's new arrowhead design for a completely reuseable shuttle is the prospect that private industry will assume the central role in American space exploration. That has been a stated goal of NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin, a former TRW Inc. executive who believes privatization is key to cutting the cost of space travel.

Private companies, concerned about their return to shareholders, have been reluctant to assume the expensive research and development function provided by NASA. While the new shuttle contractor will receive nearly $1 billion in federal funding through 1999, Lockheed Martin is also expected to spend about $220 million to build and fly the experimental ship it is calling the X-33. The Bethesda-based company should also benefit from being lead contractor in a project that may determine the future of the American rocket-launch industry.

Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas Corp. and Rockwell International Corp. competed for the shuttle contract, with the winner being announced by Vice President Al Gore at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The event was not without political implications in that vote-rich state during a presidential election year. The X-33 project may produce as many as 2,000 new jobs in California, where it will be built. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand the importance of this moment," said Mr. Gore.

It has been 25 years since the United States built a new spacecraft. The X-33 will be a half-scale model of the vehicle that will eventually replace the shuttle used now. Like the current model, the new VentureStar shuttle will be launched vertically and land horizontally. But the new shuttle won't lose its fuel tanks and boosters during each flight, thus reducing costs per mission. Lockheed's winning bid included a business plan for future shuttles to be built with $4 billion or more in private capital.

Reducing the cost of space travel will pay dividends. The nation could regain its dominance in deploying satellites, and space tourism could become more than science fiction.

Pub date: 7/08/96

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