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Space Shuttle Receives a New Lease on Life

November 14, 2002|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

NASA had welcome news Wednesday for thousands of Southern California space shuttle workers as the agency scrubbed plans for a reusable launch vehicle and decided instead to extend the life of the shuttle another decade.

Acknowledging that perfecting a reusable rocket technology could take 15 years, NASA said that in the interim it wanted to develop a smaller, less ambitious orbital space plane capable of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe outlined the strategy shift as part of his broad new plan for transporting crews into space. The agency's revised spending proposal was signed by President Bush late Wednesday and forwarded to Congress for approval.

Bush tapped O'Keefe, a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, as NASA's chief in January as the agency was facing massive cost overruns from the space station. His background as a budget cutter sparked fear among scientists that he would make major cuts in programs at NASA.

Even long-time critics of NASA applauded O'Keefe's latest strategic move.

"I think he is generally going in the right direction," Charles Vick, an independent space policy analyst, said of the NASA administrator. "He's being much more pragmatic."

The latest spending blueprint doesn't change NASA's total request of $15 billion for the current fiscal year, up from an estimated $14.9 billion in 2002. But it does redirect funding from the Space Launch Initiative, which included developing the reusable launch vehicle, as NASA plans instead to spend $1.6 billion over the next five years to upgrade the space shuttle.

Much of the rocket engine work on the space shuttle is carried out at Boeing Co.'s Canoga Park facility, while engineers at its Huntington Beach plant do design work on the shuttle.

NASA has also asked Congress to add funding for a fifth shuttle launch each year for the next five years.

Until this year, Southern California was where the shuttle underwent major modifications. That work was moved to Florida to be closer to the launch site, but some officials believe that with increased upgrade work the shuttle could return to its longtime base in Palmdale. About 1,000 people once worked on the shuttle in Palmdale.

"We're gearing up" to meet NASA's needs, said Glen Golightly, a Boeing spokesman in Huntington Beach. "We're talking to them about what they want done."

Boeing employees in Huntington Beach are particularly ebullient because designing and testing the Delta IV rocket also is done there. The new rocket, slated for its first launch Saturday, may get a significant boost since NASA is considering it to carry the backup shuttle crew into orbit. About 7,000 people work for Boeing in Huntington Beach.

The new orbiter, officially dubbed the Orbital Space Plane, would be launched into space atop a rocket and return to Earth on its own power, much like the space shuttle.

NASA expects to pick a contractor in 2004 to develop the space plane. The agency will spend $2.6 billion over five years to develop a prototype.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp. are likely to bid on the project. But the new space plane won't be ready to fly until 2010 under NASA's latest plan.

As such, the agency said it wants to funnel money that already had been earmarked for research into reusable rockets to upgrade the space shuttle and keep the vehicles flying until 2022. Ironically, the shuttle, introduced in 1981, was supposed to last only a decade. But many shuttle supporters said it has never been used the way it was envisioned when shuttles were once seen taking off every few weeks.

"It is pretty apparent to us what we're looking at is a very remarkable machine," O'Keefe said of the space shuttle. "It's still got low mileage, and it seems its life can be extended for a considerable period of time."

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