U.S. aerospace companies say they can meet Bush deadline

Work on space plane will transfer to design for Crew Exploration Vehicle

January 16, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

One speech by President Bush and the Orbital Space Plane is dead.

Bush's decision to lift NASA's sights from low Earth orbit to the moon and beyond spelled the end of development work on the multibillion dollar spaceship that would serve as a lifeboat, and later a crew ferry, for the International Space Station.

But the giant aerospace companies that won most of the $234 million in NASA funding to develop concepts for the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) say they are ready to build on those designs to meet NASA requirements for the "Crew Exploration Vehicle" the president wants to carry Americans back to the moon.

If NASA doesn't demand entirely new technology, they said, they can meet the 2008 deadline Bush set for unmanned flight tests of the new craft.

"We're confident the OSP work we've done will transition into the Crew Exploration Vehicle," said Julie Andrews, a Lockheed Martin Corp. spokeswoman at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Ed Memi, a spokesman for Boeing Co. in Houston, said: "We're actually ecstatic about the whole announcement. The whole country's going to the moon and beyond. For us, it's good news. We don't see any downsides to it."

NASA is still months away from deciding on design requirements for the new spacecraft. But yesterday the space agency established a new Office of Exploration Systems to coordinate the development.

It will be run by Craig E. Steidle, the retired Navy admiral who was the first director of the Pentagon's development team for the Joint Strike Fighter.

"There has been a tremendous amount of work that's been done on OSP, based on the requirements they've been given," Steidle said yesterday. He said he planned to take that work as his "baseline," then add in the president's new requirements, and go forward from there to develop specifications for the new vehicle.

Before Bush changed NASA's course, the space agency had committed $2.4 billion to development of the OSP - the latest concept in almost 20 years of efforts to design a spacecraft to replace the aging space shuttle. None was ever built.

Late in 2002, NASA allocated another $234 million for initial design work on the OSP. Three companies - Boeing, Orbital Sciences Corp. and a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman Corp. - were awarded contracts to begin competitive design work.

As originally conceived, the OSP would have been flight-tested by 2008 and in service by 2010, serving as a crew escape vehicle for the International Space Station after being sent into orbit unmanned.

By 2012, NASA was to have certified the spacecraft for manned launches. That would have allowed it to ferry crews up to the space station and back, replacing the shuttle fleet as crew transport vehicles.

The OSP would have had little cargo capacity, and the completion of the space station would still have depended on the heavy-lift capacity of the space shuttle. And it still does.

The new vehicle Bush proposed will have to do far more. To fulfill his goal of returning people to the moon, the CEV will need rocket engines and fuel to carry it out of Earth orbit, across the 230,000-mile gulf to the moon, in and out of lunar orbit and safely home again.

En route, it will need sufficient air and supplies to sustain the crew for a week or longer, and shielding from the harsh radiation that threatens crews beyond low Earth orbit.

If the designers follow the Apollo model, the CEV will need to carry a lunar lander to fly astronauts between lunar orbit and the moon's surface.

The two remaining OSP competitors (the Lockheed/Grumman team and Orbital joined forces last fall) had expected to present NASA with final design concepts this spring.

Instead, with Bush's speech Wednesday, the whole project - which employs hundreds of people in California, Colorado and Alabama - was stopped dead.

But NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said money spent on the OSP was not wasted.

"The OSP people are going to be transitioning to work on the Crew Exploration Vehicle," he said. "We've learned a lot from our experiences with the Orbital Space Plane. We are not starting with a clean sheet of paper."

Boeing hopes to adapt its latest OSP design concepts - a wingless "ballistic" space capsule reminiscent of the Apollo craft that last took men to the moon in 1972 - to the president's new ambitions.

Such capsules, while retro designs, are believed to be cheaper, simpler and safer than winged craft such as the space shuttle.

Memi said Boeing had anticipated a more ambitious manned space mission. "Our approach has been to develop a program that could evolve and go beyond low Earth orbit," he said.

Boeing relies on a modular concept much like Apollo's - mating a crew capsule with other modules to support a variety of missions. These might include components for fuel and propulsion, for crew support, cargo and lunar landings. They could be launched individually and assembled in orbit.

Like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, had narrowed its most recent OSP design to a bullet-shaped, ballistic capsule.

No one knows precisely what capabilities NASA will want in its new spacecraft. But both aerospace giants expressed confidence they could start where they left off on the OSP.

"It requires the same kind of technology," Andrews said, "and we have the same group of people ready to step off in the new direction."

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