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NASA's next generation of spacecraft in the works
San Francisco Chronicle


August 08, 2005

Eager to keep U.S. astronauts in space after the last space shuttle is mothballed and to realize half-century-old dreams of human bases on the moon and Mars, NASA is overseeing an industrial competition to build the next generation of manned space rockets.

In light of this week's trouble-haunted space shuttle mission, space agency officials are eager to finish developing the shuttle's proposed successor: the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), a part of President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" announced last year.

Aerospace firms are now drawing up different schemes for the new vehicle. NASA might name the winner of the competition for the $15 billion or more project as soon as early next year.

Poised atop a slender rocket booster, the CEV could fly far deeper into space - to the moon and beyond - than the shuttle. It could also haul astronauts far more safely to the international space station, advocates say.

Also, the crew vehicle will have a small rocket attached to its top. In case of a disaster at the Florida launch pad, the little rocket will act like a James Bond-style ejector seat: It will fire and carry the crew vehicle a short distance to a parachuted landing. (A similar safety rocket was attached to the top of moon-bound Saturn 5 rockets in the 1960s and early 1970s.)

For additional safety, NASA plans to spare astronauts the task of hauling large amounts of cargo into orbit. Major cargoes of up to 100 tons will instead be launched aboard a new generation of super-rockets, almost twice as tall as the 184-foot-tall space shuttle. These giant cargo vehicles - the new freight trains of space - will be unmanned and operated by remote control.

Finally - and sadly, in the eyes of some old-time space buffs, who had hoped the shuttle would evolve into a "space plane" able to take off and land horizontally, like an airplane - the CEV marks a return to NASA's past. Rather than landing horizontally like the shuttle, it will return to Earth as the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules of the 1960s and '70s did: vertically, by parachute. One scheme calls for landing the capsule somewhere in the American West - a stunt that, if realized, could become a major draw as a tourist attraction.

The old idea of a space plane reflected the "reusability" ethic of the 1970s. Back then, technology reformers called for conserving resources ranging from milk bottles to spaceships by learning how to use them over and over, rather than by junking them after a single use.

"If you can recycle a milk bottle and it's saving something, therefore, if you recycle a spaceship, won't that save something? I certainly bought into (that argument)," said George Larson, editor of Air & Space magazine.

In hindsight, though, space shuttles are very different from milk bottles: With the shuttle, human life is at stake, so the vehicle's enormous complexity and fragility requires that it be thoroughly "maintenanced and virtually rebuilt" after every mission, at huge cost.

"Historically, they're going to look back on (the shuttle) and say it was a disappointment," Larson said. "It was supposed to lower the cost (of spaceflight and) it never came close to doing that."

In any case, NASA desperately needs a new launch vehicle - whether it's the CEV or something else - that is more reliable than the shuttle fleet. Until the Discovery launch on July 26, the fleet had been out of action, and undergoing major repairs, since the shuttle Columbia disaster of February 2003, in which seven astronauts burned up on re-entry.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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