CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The replacement for NASA's aging space shuttles may take off like a plane, be propelled by booster rockets that fly back to Earth and, in one of the more radical moves, eliminate pilots.
The reusable space plane, equipped with crew escape and automatic landing systems, would be far safer than the shuttle, officials said Tuesday in unveiling 15 design concepts. It also would be much cheaper to operate, they promised.
The goal is to have it flying by 2012, right around the time the space shuttles should be retiring.
"It's a little bit smaller vehicle so it may not be quite as impressive and loud and energetic maybe as when the shuttle takes off," said Dennis Smith, manager of NASA's $4.8 billion Space Launch Initiative program. "But it has some pretty neat attributes to it."
For instance, the booster rockets could peel away, turn around and fly back to the launch site. The shuttle's two boosters parachute into the ocean and are retrieved by ships.
NASA would use its new spaceship to transport astronauts and equipment to the international space station - separately on slightly different types of craft. The commercial industry would use the same system to launch satellites, with military involvement likely as well.
Among NASA's main objectives: to lower the cost of delivering payloads to orbit from $10,000 a pound on the shuttle to $1,000 a pound or less, and reduce the risk of a deadly catastrophe from the current 1-in-almost 500 to 1-in-10,000.
The space shuttle lacks a viable crew escape system for launch, something that is crucial if NASA hopes to achieve its desired safety margin, Smith said.
"It's very aggressive, there's no question about it," he said.
Smith said ejection seats are being considered along with flyaway crew modules. Kennedy Space Center likely would serve as the launch site, although that is not a requirement. Both vertical and horizontal liftoffs are being considered.
The spaceship might be able to double as a space station lifeboat. Pilots may not be needed to take up space station crews, Smith noted.
Over the past year, NASA whittled down the list of ideas from thousands to 15 represented by three industry teams: Boeing of Seal Beach, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Corp. of Denver; and a combined Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and Northrop Grumman of El Segundo, Calif.
The concepts rely on two-stage rocketships, with engines propelled by kerosene, hydrogen or a combination.
NASA plans to settle on two concepts next year. Full-scale development of one of the ships would begin in 2006, with the first flight hopefully in 2012. In case of delays, NASA plans to keep the shuttles flying until 2020.
"We went to the moon in nine years and we developed the shuttle in eight years," Smith said. "Here we are 10 years away and really it comes down to a commitment to get behind the new system."
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