WASHINGTON — No matter what comes of the investigation of the Challenger tragedy over Florida six weeks ago and no matter what the Reagan Administration does in response to it, the American space program is in serious trouble not just for the short term but for the next five years, government and industry experts say.
That is how long it will take to build a new orbiter, step up production of expendable launching vehicles and work through a rapidly growing backlog of satellites and scientific payloads that had been scheduled to be put into orbit by the now-grounded shuttle fleet.
Can't Orbit a Grapefruit
"We are bereft of launch capacity," said Glen Wilson, a longtime member of the Senate Space Committee staff and now president of the National Space Society. "We can't even put a damn grapefruit in orbit."
William R. Graham, NASA's acting administrator, said last week that a backlog equivalent to 24 fully loaded shuttle missions will accumulate by 1990 even if the remaining three orbiters go back into operation a year after the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster. Unless a new orbiter is built to replace Challenger, the backlog will continue to grow.
By October of 1988, shuttles had been scheduled to lift 14 new commercial or foreign satellites into space, and most of them now will almost surely be delayed. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission has approved the launching of 25 more communications satellites, which have not been officially put on the shuttles' flight manifest.
And, while the shuttle program is out of commission during the next year, at least 10 Defense Department satellites are expected to be delayed. It is estimated that the number will rise to 25 or 30 by late 1988, when the Air Force plans to begin using a new expendable rocket being developed to carry the same kind of heavy payloads that go into the shuttle's cargo bay.
There are no shortcuts that would avert a crisis.
General Dynamics is still building Atlas Centaur unmanned launching vehicles, but it would take months for it to scale up its assembly force to turn out enough vehicles to have a significant impact. Two launchers already committed to specific payloads are now under construction, and the company estimates that it would take 21 months to assemble another from spare parts on hand.
At Huntington Beach, Calif., the assembly line that produced the Delta workhorse, which launched more satellites than any other rocket, has been closed since the end of 1984. There are enough spare parts to assemble two or three rockets, but a company spokesman said that it would take 21 to 24 months to put the first one together.
AF Orders Rockets
For now, with NASA all but immobilized, the Air Force will depend on 26 retired Atlas and Titan 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles in various stages of refurbishment for use as space launchers.
And grounding of the shuttles has temporarily left the military without a way to get its biggest satellites into synchronous orbit. The Air Force--which had been concerned about the possibility of just such a catastrophe as the Challenger explosion--last year, in the face of NASA opposition, ordered 10 improved Titan rockets. They are capable of putting its largest communications satellites into synchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth; but the first is not due for delivery until late 1988, and Martin Marietta Corp. has told the Pentagon that the schedule cannot be significantly accelerated.
Commercial customers who want to get communications satellites into orbit may turn to the French Ariane rocket, but it is heavily booked already, with no vacancies on its 1986 flight manifests. Officials of the consortium that built Ariane have said that in 1987 and 1988 they will attempt to accommodate six to eight satellites in the U.S. backlog.
"We are now paying the price for our niggardliness 10 to 15 years ago," Wilson said. "We cut corners, we didn't invest enough. We needed to build expendables, we needed five to six orbiters."
No 'Margin for Error'
Mark Oderman, vice president of the Center for Space Policy, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, said that NASA's budget has been whittled down just as its activities have expanded. "It lost its margin for error," he said.
While attention has been riveted on the presidential commission seeking the cause of the Challenger explosion 8.9 miles above the Florida coast, the crisis in launching capacity and the future of the beleaguered U.S. space program are being debated in extraordinary secrecy by an interagency panel headed by White House National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter.