Space Shuttle 2.0

NASA charts its next giant leap in space.

With only 16 or 17 flights left before the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, NASA is looking ahead to its next big adventure: returning to the moon in 2018.

A replacement for the winged orbiters that can make short hops to the international space station and long hikes to another planet is taking shape. In June, NASA divvied up work among 10 field centers for two rockets and a reusable space capsule at the heart of the new $104 billion Constellation Program. The agency has contracts with ATK's Thiokol propulsion division in Brigham City, Utah, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Calif., for the rockets and rocket engines, and is expected to choose a builder for the capsule in August or September.

But the family of spacecraft that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has called "Apollo on steroids" will not be ready to fly for six years, maybe eight. That means the U.S. government will be without its own way to put humans in space for as many as four years. To help bridge the gap-and this is a first for the 48-year-old agency-NASA will invest $500 million over the next five years to stimulate development of commercial services that can ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the space station after the shuttle stops flying.

More than 20 private space flight companies submitted proposals earlier this year, but only six hopefuls remained after an initial round of evaluations ended in May. Andrews Space Inc. (Seattle), Rocketplane Kistler (Oklahoma City), SpaceDev Inc. (Poway, Calif.), Spacehab Inc. (Webster, Texas), Space Exploration Technologies (El Segundo, Calif.) and Transformational Space Corp. (Reston, Va.) were undergoing further evaluation this summer. NASA anticipated signing up one or more of the finalists by September for funding for flight demonstrations in 2008 to 2010.

Unlike a typical NASA procurement, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Initiative is designed for maximum contractor flexibility and minimal government requirements and oversight. NASA's only interest is in development milestones. Participants can obtain parts and services from foreign suppliers to the extent U.S. laws and policy allow. They own the transportation systems they develop and can sell to customers other than NASA.

The agency has spent 18 months defining requirements for the new exploration vehicle with help from competing teams led by Lockheed Martin and a Northrop Grumman-Boeing partnership. One or the other will be tapped as prime contractor to provide the spacecraft-escape system, crew module, service module and adapter for the rocket. In July, the Government Accountability Office found NASA's acquisition approach at risk of cost and schedule overruns and deficient performance (GAO-06-817R).

NASA field centers got contractor work package assignments in keeping with their traditional roles. They include:

  • Johnson Space Center in Houston hosts the Constellation Program as well as capsule and mission operations.
  • Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Fla., is responsible for all ground operations from preflight preparations through launch, landing and recovery.
  • Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages design and de-velopment of the crew and cargo launchers.
  • Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., tests the rocket engines.
  • Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., share responsibility for engineering and integrating navigation software and avionics.
  • Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., is in charge of the capsule heat shield and an information technology system for safety, reliability and quality assurance.
  • Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., integrates and tests the crew escape system.
  • Glenn Research Center in Cleveland oversees development of the service module and adapter as well as systems for the crew launch vehicle.
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