As the space shuttle Columbia beeps across the sky on a 17-day mission, designers on the ground are working on a plan to replace the workhorse that has defined the United States presence in space for two decades.
NASA has its eye on a new fleet of simpler reusable rockets to take it into the 21st century. When agency officials choose a developer for the X-33 prototype, perhaps by July 1, they will cross a threshold into a new era of space travel.
For one thing, the new craft will be unmanned. It will also be far cheaper than the current orbiters, which are some of the most complex machines ever made. The new rockets could be delivering payloads to the planned International Space Station and to low-earth orbit by 2003.
"The idea behind the new shuttle is lower the cost of sending payloads - such as satellites - into orbit," says Daniel Goldin, the head of NASA, who has led a drive to make the agency more efficient. "Right now it costs about $10,000 a pound. It's been that way for two decades. We're setting a goal of $1,000 a pound with the new shuttle."
Shuttle launches have become numbingly routine, but engineers say the fleet is old, complex, and expensive. NASA sometimes has trouble finding spare parts. In addition, launching a manned shuttle takes three months and 10,000 people. The new aim is to launch in three days with a staff of 50. Three companies are vying to build the prototype - McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed Martin, and Rockwell International.
The competition is stiff, since each contractor sees a lucrative market. The commercial space launch market is now a $3 billion a year business. That could double within a decade.
"Each of these companies sees the new shuttle as a very lucrative product line," says Jay Behuncik, an analyst at Capitoline/MS&L in Washington, D.C. "By decreasing the risk and cost of sending payloads into space, the potential is certainly there for increasing US market share in the global space launch market."
But with higher profits come greater risks. NASA now owns and operates the shuttle, but in the future it hopes to be a customer.
"NASA will work on the pre-competitive research - with federal taxpayers footing the bill," says Mr. Goldin. "But we're expecting industry to pick up development of this program in production on a private basis, and we will buy services along with the private sector."
Each of the competing designs for the new shuttle would use single-stage, reusable launch rockets, rather than today's multiple-stage rockets, which are either lost after one use or must be recovered from the ocean. But other aspects of the three rival plans differ markedly.
St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas has tested a bullet-shaped shuttle that takes off and lands vertically. Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Md., is pursuing a thick arrowhead-shaped wing that takes off vertically and lands horizontally. And Rockwell, the Seal Beach, Calif., builder of the existing shuttles, proposes a souped-up and enlarged version of today's shuttle, only without the added external fuel tank and booster rockets.
But while these innovations may reduce the cost of each shuttle launch, developing a new shuttle itself won't be cheap. The estimated cost of building a new fleet ranges up to $40 billion.
Space industry officials acknowledge that the bulk of their business in the future will come from private industry and not from NASA. For one thing, NASA has not committed to using the new shuttle. And funds for the prototype will be competing with a new line of advanced disposable rockets planned by the Pentagon for satellite launches.
The US market share in the global space launch market is now about 30 percent, Europe's Arianespace has about 60 percent, and Russia and China make up the balance. But with the recent explosion of the competing Ariane 5 rocket on its maiden flight, the dynamics of the satellite-launching business could be shifting.
"$500 million worth of uninsured satellites were destroyed by the Ariane 5 explosion," says a spokesman for the Markham Space Consortium launch-insurance segment of Lloyd's of London. "In the future, companies will want to be sure that a rocket will work."
McDonnell Douglas is reportedly close to buying Rockwell International's space division, so the competition for the X-33 could be cut to two. But contractors believe the commercial market is just in its infancy, and the companies may develop a shuttle on their own if NASA rejects their design.