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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 21:57 GMT 22:57 UK
Report turns spotlight on shuttle successor

By Christine McGourty
BBC Science correspondent in Washington

One benefit to come out of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report is that it has highlighted the crucial decisions that have to be made about manned space in the post-shuttle era.

An Orbital Space Plane, Nasa

In a statement that will provide a much-needed boost to efforts to find a replacement for the ageing orbiter fleet, it concluded: "It is in the nation's interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible."

It was, it said, a matter of urgency.

The continuing debate over phasing out the shuttle had contributed to the loss of Columbia, as safety upgrades were neglected.

The lack of an obvious successor, it said, represented "a failure of national leadership".

'Shuttle for all'

And the board warned that the programme to find a replacement must avoid some of the problems that afflicted the shuttle, such as the fixed ceiling on development costs and the attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests of US space agency (Nasa), the US Department of Defense and the White House.

The vehicles that will succeed the space shuttle are to the space shuttle what the Airbus 320 is to the early barnstorming airplanes
Professor Howard McCurdy, US space expert
In 1970, Nasa leaders wanted the White House's approval for a fully reusable vehicle to provide routine and low-cost manned access to space.

But the White House, charged by President Nixon with reducing Nasa's budget, was sceptical of the benefits of manned space flight, particularly given its high costs.

So, Nasa tried to justify the shuttle on economic grounds, arguing that if it carried all government and private sector payloads, then the costs of launching and maintaining satellites could be dramatically reduced.

But meeting the military's needs was difficult.

And now the board has concluded that in retrospect: "A shuttle designed to be all things to all people created inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set at the start."

'Overriding priority'

It said these mistakes must not be repeated.

International Space Station
The Orbital Space Plane will ferry crews to the ISS

The "overriding priority" for the next US space vehicle must be crew safety, rather than issues such as low cost and reusability.

Independent expert Dr Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and former chief historian at Nasa, commented: "It's time get serious about a shuttle replacement."

"The shuttle is an ageing fleet of vehicles and, as we all know, the older a vehicle gets, the more difficult it is to keep it running properly," said Dr Launius.

"There does come a point, whether you have to ask yourself when you can continue to repair it or is it time to move on. For the shuttle that may be in five, six or seven years. But it's going to cost serious money to develop.

"One of the problems we've had thus far is that we have not allocated sufficient investment in dollars to make it happen," Dr Launius said.

The last major effort on these lines was for the X-33, a mid-1990s effort to build a reusable single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle. It was a partnership between Nasa and Lockheed Martin.

"But they allocated a grand total of $1.5bn to do this, which is not going to lead us to a flyable vehicle. You need probably three to four times that amount," Dr Launius said.

Space 'Airbus'

In the medium term, the shuttle's successor is likely to be what Nasa calls an Orbital Space Plane, but it is not clear yet what form this will take.

Whatever is decided, the board said that it could not be built on the cheap.

It is likely "to require a significant commitment of resources over the next several years. The nation must not shy from making that commitment," the report said.

The remaining shuttles are now between 10- and 20-years-old.

And the report has called for a "rigorous and comprehensive recertification" of the fleet if the spacecraft are to fly beyond 2010.

Recertification is a process to ensure flight safety when a vehicle's operations exceed its original design life.

Professor Howard McCurdy, a space expert at American University, said: "The vehicles that will succeed the space shuttle are to the space shuttle what the Airbus 320 is to the early barnstorming airplanes."

"They're a progressive improvement in capability and reliability," Professor McCurdy said.

He said Nasa now faced important policy decisions over how long to fly the shuttle, and what investment to make in a successor, while at the same time funding the effort to make the shuttles safe to fly for the foreseeable future.

'Flawed' decisions

The board concluded in its report that the origins of this crucial problem now facing Nasa were deep-rooted.

It criticised as "flawed" the decision in the 1970s not to fund technologies for space transportation other than those related to the shuttle.

And in the 1990s, the Clinton administration hoped that the private sector would help pay for the development of a shuttle replacement.

The situation improved in 2000, with the announcement of Nasa's Space Launch Initiative, and an increasing investment in space transportation technologies.

It was in 2002 that Nasa introduced the concept of an Orbital Space Plane as an interim complement to the shuttle for carrying crews too and from the space station.

But the time when the shuttle's successor is ready to fly, remains a long way off.

The BBC's Jacky Rowland
"The investigators went beyond technical problems; they say Nasa's management was equally to blame"

Nasa plans shuttle successor
20 Feb 03  |  Americas


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