The debate is beginning in earnest this week over how to patch and rebuild the United States space launch fleet after the loss of Challenger. The immediate choices facing Congress and the Reagan administration may well change the character of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the entire US space industry.
Two things seem clear: NASA has shifted its policy from one of total reliance on the manned, reusable shuttles to favor a mixed fleet of shuttles and unmanned, throwaway rockets; and getting the US program launching again is going to be expensive.
William Graham, NASA's acting administrator, told a congressional hearing this week that the agency has decided since the Challenger explosion to include expendable rockets in the nation's launch repertory. He indicated that the launches would be commercial, rather than NASA operated.
The real decision belongs to Congress and the White House, who will decide what the deficit-strapped government wants to pay for. The Congressional Budget Office reported Wednesday that it estimates the cost of replacing Challenger at roughly $5 billion over the next five years.
The shift toward using throwaway rockets, known as expendable launch vehicles in space jargon, has brought new hope to the largely frustrated effort to commercialize space transportation.
At the center of these stirrings, a key question is emerging: Will NASA buy rockets and operate the launches or send the business to private space transport companies?
If NASA decides to leave the launching to private outfits, according to some congressional analysts, the Challenger disaster may have created an opportunity for a commercial launch industry to get off the ground.
Now, these companies are undercut in the satellite-launching business by the government-subsidized prices of the shuttle and the European Space Agency's Ariane rockets.
The decision could change the nature of NASA as well, at least in part. NASA-watchers point to a tension in the organization between its mission as a cutting-edge team of space engineers doing pioneering work and its more recent role as a routine operating agency for the shuttle.
NASA must decide, these observers say, whether it wants to operate the nation's space transport system or return to its role as a research and development agency.
Referring to private launch companies, Richard DalBello, space and defense analyst with the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, says, ``In the near term, the most intelligent thing we can do is let these rocket companies run'' the expendable launch vehicles.
Deke Slayton, former NASA astronaut and president of Space Services Inc. in Houston, agrees. If NASA decides to force some of its shuttle customers to use commercial launchers, Mr. Slayton says, ``it probably won't mean a whole lot for our little company. But it will help the bigger expendable-launch companies who have been trying to make a go of it'' against government-supported competition.
The high price-tag of building a new shuttle includes the cost of the accident investigation, the redesigning that results, a new orbiter to replace Challenger, replacing the spare parts used for the new orbiter, and the higher operating costs for a more conservative, cautious shuttle program.
It also includes between $1 billion and $1.5 billion for expendable rockets to help NASA catch up with demand for launch space. ``It looks like they're going to buy some rockets,'' says a CBO spokesman. ``We're not sure how many.''
That $5 billion hangs heavy over NASA's budget. The agency's current annual budget is $7.3 billion. If NASA decides to follow the CBO pattern and request a new shuttle, as expected, then some of the costs may have to come from existing NASA programs.
John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists, says NASA could save money by sticking solely with the shuttle. The cost per launch of a Delta rocket, which carries roughly the same payload as the shuttle, is roughly twice the cost per launch of a new shuttle, if the shuttle's cost is spread over its lifetime of roughly 100 launches.
So the shuttle makes more sense economically, he says, and could be made acceptably safe if the program is not rushed ``the way it has been for the past couple years.''
Slayton would prefer to see NASA reserve the now-limited space aboard shuttles for payloads that require manned launches or retrievable equipment. Let private companies compete for the rest, he suggests.
It's still not clear whether the large aerospace companies that build rockets would not prefer to sell them to NASA instead of to the largely unproven private launch firms. Mr. DalBello hopes not. ``We've got an industry here and we should start treating it like one.''
With the shuttles grounded for the next year at least, the fleet undersized until at least 1989, and the French Ariane launches booked for the next two years, the window of opportunity is wide open for private space companies, says DalBello. ``If our private sector can't make ELVs go in the next two years, there's something wrong with our private sector.''
[Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, high winds Thursday temporarily halted efforts to salvage more shuttle debris off of Cape Canaveral.
[The recovery ship USS Preserver steamed into port Wednesday night carrying more remains of Challenger's astronauts, space suits, and an astronaut's personal effects along with other debris, sources said. Also aboard ship were sections of the flight deck where four of the seven astronauts rode.
[A four-man submarine has located a 500-pound chunk of what is believed to be the wreckage of the right solid-rocket booster. Recovery of the segment could take several days because of its 600-foot depth and strong underwater currents, officials said.