The course of the American space shuttle program, post-Challenger, is finally clear. By the early 1990s, the United States will once again be flying a four-orbiter shuttle fleet -- although at a less furious pace than planned before the Challenger accident -- but without any commercial satellites in the payloads.
These decisions, announced by the White House Friday, are seen as a victory for the commercial launch companies that will no longer have to compete with the shuttle in the satellite-launching business.
It is less clear what the decisions mean for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
President Reagan has left vague the matter of how to pay for the new shuttle orbiter, which will cost altogether around $2.8 billion. Some of that money, the White House says, will come out of NASA programs.
``If NASA has to crowd out some of its own payload,'' says John Logsdon, a space-policy analyst at George Washington University, ``then it's becoming more of a transportation company. That's a concern.''
According to the White House, money for the new shuttle will come from savings from other federal agencies, savings from NASA's two-year launch hiatus while it redesigns faulty booster rocket joints, newly appropriated money, and from other NASA programs.
The White House decision was greeted with skepticism from Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the space program. NASA doesn't have that much extra money, they said.
Now that the shuttle is out of the commercial satellite-launching business, the private launch companies -- none of which has launched a satellite yet -- will be put to the test.
``Only time will tell how well industry can pick up that challenge and compete with the Chinese and perhaps the Japanese in a year or two,'' says Richard Smith, former director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center and chief executive officer of General Space Corporation.
Mr. Smith notes that President Reagan's announcement made a distinction between launching commercial satellites and carrying the kind of payloads that require manned flights. In order to develop the possibilities for space manufacturing, it is especially important that the shuttle carry payloads that need human attention, Smith says.
John Pike, space-policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, believes that there is too little demand for commercial satellite launches now to support a private industry in expendable launch vehicles, or unmanned, one-use rockets. In fact, by the mid-1990s, the shuttle will be cheaper and more reliable than expendable rockets, he says.
Mr. Pike adds that without competitive commercial launch industry, it will be difficult to keep commercial payloads off the shuttle. ``It's the type of decision that's going to be revisited continually over the decade,'' he says.
The shuttles are expected to be flying again in the spring of 1988. NASA last week announced its redesign of the booster rocket joints that caused the Challenger accident.
The new shuttle orbiter is scheduled to be completed in 1991. The decision to build it followed eight months of debate within the Reagan administration over whether another orbiter was worth the money. The decision, says S. Neil Hosenball, space-policy analyst at the University of Colorado and a former NASA general counsel, ``signifies to the people in NASA that they have the President's support. It's a tremendous morale builder.''