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Thursday, September 15, 2005

White House Backs NASA Plan for Vehicles - New York Times

White House Backs NASA Plan for Vehicles - New York TimesSeptember 16, 2005
White House Backs NASA Plan for Vehicles

The White House has approved NASA's plan to replace the nation's aging fleet of winged spaceships with a new generation of vehicles meant to carry human explorers back to the Moon and onward to Mars and beyond, aerospace experts said yesterday.

The new rockets and spaceships are a radical departure for the space program, rearranging the components of the space shuttle into a new design expected to be more powerful than the shuttle but also safer. The shuttle has had two fatal accidents in 114 missions.

"It's a thumbs-up for NASA to pursue the shuttle-derived vehicle," said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and an adviser to the NASA initiative. "The question is the schedule, not the basic approach."

Other experts, who refused to be identified because the space agency will not formally announce the proposal , also spoke about the plan yesterday.

The redesign proposal was first reported in August by agency officials and private experts. Unlike the shuttle, the new vehicles would separate the jobs of hauling people and cargo into orbit and would put the payloads atop the rockets - as far as possible from the dangers of firing engines and falling debris, which were responsible for the accidents that destroyed the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.

But by making the rockets from shuttle parts, the new plan would draw on the shuttle's existing network of thousands of contractors and technologies, in theory speeding its completion and lowering its cost.

The plan has been ready for unveiling for roughly six weeks but was held up because of delays in White House approval.

Yesterday, the aerospace experts said Michael D. Griffin, NASA's administrator, met with White House officials on Wednesday and won a preliminary approval for the project despite continuing questions about how to pay for it.

One problem is that the existing shuttle is still consuming a large share of the agency's budget. A complicating factor, they added, is growing fiscal pressure on Washington because of the government's unexpected need to help rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Bush administration has called for the shuttles to be retired by 2010. Dr. Griffin had wanted the first of the replacement vehicles to be ready to fly by 2011. But the experts said yesterday that the earliest conceivable date for the first flight of the replacement was now 2012.

The smaller rocket, for carrying people, would still dwarf the shuttle, which stands 184 feet high. The larger one, for lifting heavy cargoes and spaceships but not people, would rise to a height of some 350 feet, rivaling the Saturn 5 rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon.

In theory, the cargo hauler would have its first test flights in 2016 and 2017 and first hurl people toward the Moon in 2018, the experts said.

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