Inside the Capitol

Monday, September 04, 2006

9-8 Next generation space shuttle can't be based in NM

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- In a surprise move, NASA has picked Lockheed Martin Corp. to build Orion, the successor to the space shuttle. That isn't good news for New Mexico.
Lockheed is the largest of the defense contractors but Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing have been the major contractors for manned space vehicles. Lockheed had specialized in robotic space flight, but now will also be the major contractor for human space flight.
Lockheed's first proposal for the Orion crew exploration vehicle looked more like the shuttle and was designed to land as the current shuttle does. But NASA decided it wants to go back to the tried and true capsule that carried Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
The shuttle program's two space disasters took place on liftoff and reentry Those problems wouldn't have occurred with the capsule model.
Fifteen years ago, when New Mexico first attempted to host the successor to the current space shuttle, the trend was toward development of reusable single-stage-to-orbit vehicles.
They were thought to be much more practical than the first and second stages that were dropped into the ocean and the crew capsule that plunked into the Pacific and no longer was usable.
But there were no fatalities on those missions, which led NASA to instruct Lockheed to go back to the old design.
That leaves out New Mexico, since liftoff requires a nearby ocean. So, once again, lift off will require plowing through several thousand feet of atmosphere that wouldn't be necessary in New Mexico.
The award to Lockheed will be a big plus for Colorado where there was much celebrating at Lockheed Martin Space System's Denver headquarters.
The choice of the name Orion also was a throwback. That was the name of the moon lander for the next to last moon mission and also the name for the promising nuclear rocket project, begun in the 1950s but cancelled in the early '60s amid reactions to anything nuclear.
NASA is proudly calling Orion "Apollo on steroids." It has led some to ask why they didn't just call it "Apollo II."
New Mexico had high hopes for hosting the second-generation shuttle program back in the single-stage-to-orbit days. McDonnell Douglas was testing a craft at White Sands Missile Range.
The Delta Clipper would take off like a rocket, maneuver in the air, and touch back down on its base, just as rockets have done in the movies for years.
Technically known as the DC-X, the rocket was flown successfully eight times at WSMR, under a $3 million test program administered by Phillips Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. It was then scheduled to be torn down and be rebuilt as the DC-XA under a $43 million NASA contract.
Much money had been spent on its development, which began as part of the Star Wars program, under the Pentagon. A shift in focus to earthbound defenses after the Ronald Reagan administration moved development of a new launch vehicle away from the Pentagon and into NASA's realm.
It appeared McDonnell Douglas might be in line for the $840 million X-33 program to demonstrate reusable rocket technology, which also could be developed for widespread commercial use.
At the same time, New Mexico Tech at Socorro was helping develop an even lower cost rocket than the Delta Clipper. The revolutionary technology relied on explosives research long conducted at Tech.
In September 1995, U.S. Rep Joe Skeen flipped the switch for the new Scorpius engine and the first test of the unbelievably simple and inexpensive engine was pronounced a success. The engine had only 38 movable parts, compared to over 15,000 in conventional chemical fuel rockets.
But the bid for the X-33 went to Lockheed Martin, which encountered problem after problem for several years before the effort was pronounced impossible in 2001.
That's likely why NASA decided to go back to its old technology. Guess we'll have to hope Lockheed does a better job this time.
FRI, 9-08-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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