NASA chooses wedge-shaped spaceship for 21st century

NASA unveiled the design for America’s first new spaceship in a generation Tuesday, a reusable, wedge-shaped craft called VentureStar that would take off and land almost as easily as an airplane and open space to more people.
Vice President Al Gore announced the winning, futuristic-looking design by Lockheed Martin Corp., calling it a “high-tech marvel.” The project means $900 million for Lockheed and a boost for the Southern California economy, which has been devastated by cutbacks in the defense industry.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the importance of this moment,” Gore told a crowd gathered outside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The experimental X-33 rocket is expected to lead to a fully reusable spaceship to replace the current fleet of four space shuttles. NASA hopes the new craft will cut launch costs to a fraction of what they are for the shuttle and be more reliable than the shuttles.
The X-33 also should be able to land and take off again in a few days, rather than the four months it takes to get a shuttle ready for a new mission.
The objective, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said, is to open the space frontier “not just to special NASA astronauts.”
“Now we fly dozens of astronauts a year,” he said. “This vehicle should allow hundreds a year to fly, and vehicles that come beyond it to allow thousands of people to fly.”
Rather than name the winner, Gore lifted a model of Lockheed’s design. The crowd at the afternoon ceremony cheered.
“With years of hard work and determined leadership still ahead, this is the craft that can carry America’s dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century,” said Gore.
The other contenders were shuttle builder Rockwell International Corp. and its streamlined shuttle look-alike, and McDonnell Douglas Corp. and its vertical launcher and lander.
Regardless of who won, California stood to gain. Each of the companies planned to build the spacecraft primarily in California, a decision that means 1,000 new jobs in a region hit hard by defense and aerospace cutbacks early in the decade.
“Two thousand jobs — that helps California. A billion dollars helps California,” said U.S. Rep. Howard McKeon of Palmdale, the city north of Los Angeles where the craft will be built.
Lockheed Martin offered to conduct more tests than the other two companies, said Gary Payton, director of NASA’s reusable launch vehicle program, and its proposed X-33 is more similar to the full-scale spaceship it would eventually build.
Lockheed Martin’s proposal was the most unusual looking by far. Resembling a horizontal triangle in flight, its X-33 will be 67 feet long and 68 feet wide at the tail, with a gross liftoff weight of 273,000 pounds. Like the shuttle, it will take off vertically and land horizontally like an airplane.
The company will conduct a dozen or so unmanned, suborbital test flights in Southern California in 1999.
Then it will be up to Lockheed Martin and investors to determine whether it’s economically feasible to proceed with a twice-as-large, operational RLV, or reusable launch vehicle. Three VentureStar spaceships likely would be built, Payton said.
The companies have estimated it will cost between $4 billion and $8 billion to build the RLV.
Unlike the shuttle, the RLV would have no throwaway parts. It also would feature more efficient engines, lighter fuel tanks and more durable thermal insulation, all time and money savers.
NASA plans to be a major user of this rocketship, with the future international space station its prime destination. Capable of flying with or without crews 40 to 50 times a year, the RLV would become operational around 2006 or 2007 — just in time to start phasing out the shuttle.
The shuttle was announced by President Nixon in 1972 and first flew in 1981. After 78 missions, the cost is still high and the flight rate low: NASA spends $3 billion a year for seven or eight flights.
NASA’s Goldin says the new program will be different.
“We want to fly it in 32 months. We’re not going to have to wait a decade. We’re not going to spend billions of dollars,” he said. “The less we spend on launch, the more resources we’ll have for science and technology.”