The government is expected to narrow the competition this week in the National Aerospace Plane program, the experimental vehicle that is supposed to take off like an aircraft and soar into orbit at 25 times the speed of sound.
Five aerospace contractors--Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International--have been working since early last year under government research contracts to design an airframe for the NASP. Four of the five firms are doing a major part of the work in Southern California.
As early as Wednesday, the field of competitors will be narrowed to two or three contractors for the second phase of the program, in which preliminary designs will be completed and some hardware built during the next 2 1/2 years.
The aerospace plane, dubbed the "Orient Express" by President Reagan in a speech last year, is projected to cost $3.3 billion for production and some flight testing through the mid-1990s, according to Robert Williams, NASP program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Pentagon. The program is a joint effort of four defense agencies, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The contractors bidding for the NASP all have extensive high-speed flight or space flight experience, and the competition for an award is considered tough, both technically and economically.
The government is anticipating that contractors will bear the brunt of development costs. The second phase of the program will provide $25.5 million to each contractor, but costs could easily soar above $100 million. As a result, the contractors who survive the winnowing-out process this week are not likely to see any return on their efforts for many years.
But the competition is still stiff, because the NASP has opened new possibilities for aviation and rekindled national interest in high-speed flight, something that has not been of keen public interest in the United States since the 1960s.
"Hypersonics are coming," said Sam Iacobellis, president of Rockwell International's North American Aircraft unit, one of the NASP contractors. "It is the future. It is going to be important, not only because of its commercial but its military value."
Few experts dispute the fact that NASP is an important development for the nation's future space and aeronautics capability, but many are raising difficult questions. And one of the government's biggest challenges is to keep the program moving forward rapidly.
"This could have a major effect on society by the turn of the century," Williams said. "As we say in the program, the sky is no longer the limit."
The program has already encountered some political resistance in Congress as a result of national budget pressures, however, resulting in cutbacks in future NASP funding. The House Armed Services Committee has tentatively cut $25 million, and the Senate has cut $36 million from the Administration's $236-million request for NASP in fiscal 1988. The NASA authorization committees have also reduced the NASA portion of the NASP funding.
In addition, NASP has generated strident opposition in some quarters of the technical and space communities. Some experts feel that, with the NASP, the nation is embarking on a risky technological development that emphasizes putting humans in space without justification.
"Why should it be manned, when the biggest problem we face is getting things into orbit at a low cost?" asked Richard DeLauer, former undersecretary of defense for research and development and a former TRW executive. "It is never going to be done for the price and in the time they are saying.
"It is a specious program," he added. "We aren't going even to have a space program unless we get costs down. This was an opportunity, but it got turned around."
Criticism also comes from senior military space officials, who question whether NASP will ever fulfill the goal of an aircraft that can take off horizontally and make the transition into hypersonic flight.
"They have not solved the problem of going from takeoff to orbit with one engine," one senior expert in space technology said. "We have not seen any design that conforms to what was described early in the effort."
But supporters fervently defend the NASP, saying it will be the most efficient aerospace vehicle ever flown. Going from horizontal, low-speed takeoff to orbit will require the use of either two or three engines, the supporters say, but they emphasize that the NASP program will reach its goal of putting a single-stage craft into orbit.
Under the program, two aircraft and some additional components will be built. The NASP will be only an experimental vehicle with no capability to carry payload other than its own instruments. As many as 150 flights are expected to be conducted out of Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles.