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Launch of Deep-Space Payloads in Limbo : Demise of $1-Billion Shuttle-Centaur Rocket Puts Missions on Hold

January 25, 1987|HOWARD BENEDICT | Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The upside was marvelous--a rocket to propel scientific probes into deep space, to the planets, to the sun itself.

But the downside was horrific.

An Air Force report called NASA's shuttle-Centaur rocket a "veritable bomb" and the Department of Energy said if it exploded during liftoff, it would destroy the shuttle and its crew. But that is not the half of it: The shuttle-Centaur would be carrying a nuclear generator. If the generator were damaged in a launch-pad catastrophe, it could release cancer-causing radiation into the skies over central Florida--the ultimate nightmare at Disney World.

Weighing the adventure against the risk, NASA had laid plans to launch its first shuttle-Centaur mission this year.

The Challenger explosion a year ago this week first delayed the mission and finally NASA--now weighing the risk against the adventure--cited safety factors and canceled the shuttle-Centaur program altogether.

Money Down the Drain

Almost $1 billion had been spent, most of it now down the drain.

NASA and the Air Force had spent $472.8 million on shuttle-Centaur development. In addition, NASA had paid $411 million for three sets of flight hardware. Cost overruns had reached $250 million and officials estimated another $300 million would have been needed to make the Centaur safe.

Just shutting down the program is costing NASA an additional $75 million, and the entire billion could be lost if the two rockets that have been built can't be adapted for use on unmanned boosters.

If the loss of money was heartbreaking to NASA accountants, the delay in flights was even more disappointing to the agency's scientists, for Centaur was not flying just any mission. NASA's planetary scientists are now left with a major problem: how to launch three long-awaited, prized missions--Galileo to Jupiter, Ulysses to orbit the sun and Magellan to Venus.

On top of that, junking the shuttle-Centaur program has the Defense Department searching for alternative means to boost six military payloads.

Long-Lived Controversy

Shuttle-Centaur has been controversial since the mid-1970s when the space agency began shopping for a "high energy" upper-stage rocket to boost military and civilian satellites out of orbiting shuttles.

NASA and the Pentagon agreed that it should be a solid fuel rocket for convenience and safety. The Air Force said it would fund development of a two-stage booster, the Inertial Upper Stage, or IUS. NASA said it would pay for development of a third stage for hoisting heavier satellites and propelling deep-space probes.

Developing the rocket, especially the third stage, was more difficult than anticipated and by 1980 it became clear that the IUS contractor, Boeing, would not be able to deliver a vehicle powerful enough to carry Galileo aloft during a 1982 launch window.

And with Boeing still having troubles in 1981, NASA canceled the third stage and announced that it instead would use a modified version of its liquid fuel Centaur rocket in the shuttle.

Holds Dangerous Fuel

The Centaur had been used as a reliable upper stage on unmanned Atlas and Titan rockets for more than a decade, lifting satellites, moon probes and planetary explorers. But its use on the shuttle would require carrying liquid propellant with all its pipes and valves--leak opportunities, one and all--in the cargo bay for the first time. The rocket is powered by tricky-to-handle liquid hydrogen, using liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. The hydrogen had to be maintained in the tank at a temperature of minus 423 degrees to remain liquid, the oxygen at minus 297 degrees.

Making Centaur safe to be carried on a manned vehicle would require several modifications, including a dump valve for jettisoning 17,500 gallons of fuel in case the shuttle had to make an emergency landing with the rocket still in the bay. Moreover, the fuel tank would have to be shortened and widened to fit into the cargo bay.

The White House Office of Management and Budget took a dim view of the costs of this modification and killed the shuttle-Centaur project. But Centaur proponents eventually won after prolonged debate in Congress and President Reagan approved $140 million as start-up money in the fiscal 1982 budget. NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland was assigned to manage the effort and General Dynamics Convair Division was awarded the contract.

Some Express Concerns

Still, some people were unhappy about the safety aspects, particularly officials and astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which managed the shuttle program.

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