WASHINGTON — Concerned about burgeoning costs and troubling delays, a senior California congressman Tuesday launched a campaign to dramatically retool the troubled, $12.5-billion effort to build a National Aerospace Plane.
The goal of the project, which involves a host of California contractors, is to develop an experimental aircraft that can fly from a standing start on a runway into Earth orbit at speeds of 17,000 miles an hour using air-fed engines to replace or complement rockets.
At a congressional hearing, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton) unveiled legislation that would direct the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which share responsibility for the project, to drastically cut the size, cost and production schedule of the proposed X-30, or NASP, as the craft is known.
"We seem to be no closer today than we were six years ago to achieving the first orbital flight . . . ," said Brown, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
"With this year's budget cuts threatening the program, NASP could be permanently grounded unless we develop a new approach for the effort."
The Brown legislation, which will await action until the 103rd Congress convenes in January, calls for reducing the space plane's cost to $5 billion, scaling back its weight from 350,000 to 50,000 pounds and delivering a prototype in five years, instead of the planned seven.
Brown said that the precise weight of the plane is open to discussion. But he added that his bill is intended to serve notice that NASP program managers should concentrate on building a truly experimental space plane rather than a larger, more fully refined craft. Several witnesses who testified Tuesday said that a significantly lighter prototype can be built.
Supporters argue that a hypersonic aerospace plane could provide access to space that is both faster and much less expensive than that provided by the space shuttle. But critics complain that neither President Bush nor former President Ronald Reagan, who made production of the space plane a presidential priority in 1986, has ever properly justified the cost of the program. When Reagan announced his support, the cost of the spacecraft was pegged at less than $4 billion.
Faced with growing cost estimates, the Bush Administration announced in 1989 that it would reduce annual expenditures on the craft by temporarily shifting the program's emphasis to materials research and that it would delay until 1993 a decision on whether to build a prototype.
The project already has cost about $2.5 billion, about $1 billion of which has come from five private contractors who formed a consortium to conduct joint research.