An X-40A prototype built by Boeing, is a three-quarter scale model of the X-37 space plane that NASA hopes to build.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

How do you replace a space shuttle? After the Challenger explosion 17 years ago, the answer was Endeavour, built for $1.3 billion out of spare parts and incidental research from flying a couple dozen missions. Now, with the shuttle fleet’s flagship lost, there are no spare parts and little motivation to continue reproducing technology conceived 30 years ago.

Actually, the shuttle fleet’s age is a bit of a stalking-horse for those who’d like to point fingers. Columbia finished a major 17-month overhaul in 2001, including the addition of a digital “glass” cockpit. Even its oldest components were only ever as old as the Air Force fleet’s average age of 22 years.

But turning over your fleet is tough to do when your whole stable consists of four multibillion-dollar spacecraft that must be broken down and rebuilt between each flight.

“What they’re operating is old and has limits,” says Frank Sietzen Jr., president of the Space Transportation Association, which advocates the commercial space industry. “And you suck up money in those technological limits.”

It’s not just a need for parts too complex to find on eBay: The shuttle’s entire manufacturing base is essentially gone. Most subcontractors who built individual portions have either been bought up by competitors or went on to other jobs. The assembly line at the Air Force’s fabled Plant 42, in Palmdale, Calif., that fashioned the original shuttles has long since been retasked.

Most money for equipment goes into those major overhauls and the maintenance of big-ticket items like the foam-covered expendable external fuel tank produced by Lockheed Martin and reusable rocket boosters from Thiokol, which was largely faulted for the Challenger explosion. Smaller contractors have picked up the task of turning out secondary items, such as the carbon heat tiles that need continuous replacement.

The orignial clique
Yet the shuttle program is essentially still run by its original benefactors. Day-to-day operations are handled by United Space Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two main contractors on the original program. (A third, Rockwell, merged with Boeing in 1996.)

USA originally won a $7 billion, six-year contract to manage the program; that was extended in 2002 for another two years at a cost of $2.5 billion. Up to 90 percent of the workers on the shuttle program work for USA, not NASA.

The flexibility gives NASA options to decide how it wants to manage the program, and keeps a key contractor from becoming complacent. But there’s not much competition to be induced.

There was a time, in the early 1990s, when the lure of a rapidly growing private satellite industry and the possibility of launching tourists into space prompted a handful of brash space startups. But the commercial satellite industry has tapered off and the few tourists in orbit have caught rather expensive rides with the Russian government.

A few upstarts have survived: Orbital Sciences turned its Pegasus platform into a profitable venture; Kistler Aerospace, which has been developing a reusable launch vehicle for small satellites, recently won $135 million as part of NASA’s Space Launch Initiative program.

But NASA is largely stricken by the same fear of risk that spiked so many dot-com ventures. And only a few companies — with familiar names — have deep enough budgets and research staffing right now to take on a massive project like a new manned spacecraft.

“If NASA was to go with some startup company that has a wonderful, novel concept, somebody is going to be second-guessing,” says Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst for the Teal Group. “The problem is, if you leave it to traditional companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to develop something, it’s not going to be cheap.”

Ambition and frustration
NASA’s efforts to plan a shuttle successor have had a long, frustrating history. Great hopes were placed in the early 1990s for a single-stage, reusable vehicle to replace the shuttles — similar in design, yet able to launch without being strapped to a massive rocket booster.

But after $1.2 billion in funding, the VentureStar program, as it was known, and its X-33 prototype went nowhere — tangled by engineering setbacks and skyrocketing cost projections. It was cancelled in 2001, a frustrating end to what was nearly a decade of waiting.

“We did Mercury, Gemini, Apollo — all in the course of eight years,” says Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., whose district includes Cape Canaveral. “The desire eight years ago when I first entered Congress was to have a shuttle replacement flying in eight to 12 years. The budgets were never there. The technology wasn’t there.”

The vision, though, lived on through NASA’s Orbital Space Plane program. The hope for the OSP is to develop a new vehicle that essentially emulates the shuttle’s operating methods — shot up using an expendible rocket booster and landed like an aircraft — but to incorporate new technology and to do it quickly enough that the engineering doesn’t become obsolete. They hope to have it ready for crew use by 2012.

The three proposals in the running have some familiar names attached: Lockheed Martin; Northrop-Grumman, which built the original shuttle wings; and Boeing, which had already begun work on a demonstration vehicle, the X-37. The X-37, and its smaller X-40A precursor, are unmanned proofs-of-concept meant to create both a “lifeboat” for the International Space Station and a template for the OSP. But even those modest goals may leave officials with jitters.

“NASA is going to have to decide how ambitious it wants to be,” says Caceres. “Are they going to be … risking astronauts based on these concepts? It’s not NASA’s style.”

Risks aside, the space program has no choice but to keep development on a shorter timeline than the shuttle program, which lumbered through well over a decade of research before Columbia ever rolled onto the launch pad. If the shuttle fleet grows too old, or gets phased out too soon, NASA will be left without a fleet. And only the shuttle can carry the remaining pieces of the space station into orbit — since no current plan for a space plane would replace that ability.

“We may be flying the shuttle for the next 20 to 30 years,” Weldon told MSNBC.com. “We may just not be flying it as often as we have in the past.”

Image: Space planes
NASA is considering several concepts for its next-generation orbital space plane, including the ideas sketched out in this graphic.

Rocket science meets accounting
To its credit, NASA has acknowledged it has a crisis on the horizon. Last November, faced with a price tag of $30 to $40 billion for a full shuttle replacement, it folded its hand and redealt the deck — offering its Integrated Space Transportation Plan.

The proposal has three goals: keep the shuttle program running; develop the new space plane; and build other “next-generation” launch technologies, including reusable vehicles and better propulsion efforts. In part, that meant allotting $2.8 billion over five years for the space plane while trimming away $2.1 billion from more obscure projects. New projections for the OSP program have slashed the price tag in half.

This isn’t just fun with numbers. Administrator Sean O’Keefe, brought over as a cost-cutter from the Office of Management and Budget, faces the unenviable task of pushing NASA toward its future while trying to grow a $15 billion budget that hadn’t expanded since President Clinton took office. (President Bush has offered modest raises in funding.)

But O’Keefe shouldn’t lose track of the need for basic rockets. It’s now pretty clear the new space plane won’t launch itself into orbit — it will need to piggyback. Even if the first generation of a new craft carries only three crew, instead of the seven the shuttle can hold, the only U.S. technologies that can lift something so big are the military’s Atlas rockets and Boeing’s Delta 4 vehicle, which got its first launch last November and has yet to be proven safe for a manned mission. Otherwise, NASA must rely on its French or Russian counterparts.

Or, given the Bush administration’s fondness for market-based competition, NASA officials could get really serious about turning space flight to the private sector. Rather than setting long, costly timelines for new designs or technology, the government could just bid for its more routine missions among companies looking to make a profit — and let them take the financial risks.

“If NASA needs water at the space station, it’s crazy to depend on the shuttle — the most expensive launch system ever made — to deliver something as mundane as that,” says Space Frontier Foundation board member John Cserep.

Either way, officials will need to decide how they want to define space flight: keep it as a mysterious adventure available to the very few, limited to science and public research; or fund a new generation of rocket builders who could make space flight so frequent and normal that the constant sense of danger we all felt so profoundly last week is finally wiped away.

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