Contractors competing to build the country's next spaceship to transport people to orbit are getting a strong hint from NASA about a viable and potentially cheaper vehicle than a winged craft such as the shuttle.
A NASA study urges teams working to develop the new vehicle, called the Orbital Space Plane, to take a serious look at resurrecting an Apollo-style capsule. The OSP is scheduled to begin operation in less than seven years, initially to serve as a lifeboat for space station crews. Within nine years, the agency wants the new ship to be launched aboard an expendable booster and carry crews into space as well.
NASA had been developing a small, reusable winged vehicle to serve as a station lifeboat, but canceled its program due to cost overruns with the station program. Efforts to develop a new vehicle, however, were accelerated after the Feb. 1 Columbia accident and the ongoing investigation, which already has uncovered potentially serious, age-related issues with the shuttle fleet that could affect NASA's plans to keep the ships flying for another two decades.
No matter how long the shuttles remain in service, the agency wants its own vehicle to complement the Russian Soyuz capsules that currently are providing space crew transport services.
"We think (a derivative of the Apollo capsule) would be cheaper than putting something with wings up there," said study team member John Young, a NASA manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and six-time astronaut who has flown on Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle missions.
Opening the door to an Apollo-era capsule would be a boon for Boeing, which owns the firm that built the Apollo Command and Service Modules -- the portion of the spaceship that is the focus of the NASA study.
"An Apollo-derived (Command Module) could provide a (crew return vehicle) capability and, in principle, meet most of the Orbital Space Plane Level 1 (crew return vehicle) requirements," the study concludes.
The vehicle would be carried to the station in the space shuttle's payload bay. But with the addition of an Apollo Service Module, the ship could be launched on an expendable booster and take over crew transport responsibilities from the shuttle as well.
The idea already has found support in Congress.
Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., said he is aware people might have negative feelings about the capsule initially because it sounds as though it would be throwback to an earlier era, not something new and ground-breaking.
However, he said, "My studying of space policy and history has led me to consider the conclusion that an expendable capsule system, akin to the Apollo Command Module, may be the best way to do this ... Flights could be more responsive and less costly with the elimination of the post-flight maintenance and reconfiguration that a reusable system requires."
In addition, said Weldon, "A flight-certified capsule system that is proven to be robust, can be modified to go to the moon or even as the return vehicle for near-Earth asteroid or Mars mission."
Former shuttle commander Sid Gutierrez, a member of NASA's safety oversight committee and a director at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, said a capsule design is, in many ways, inherently more robust than a reusable, winged system like the shuttle.
"Right now, people would be happy to accept something if it meant they didn't have to go to memorial services every 17 years," said Gutierrez, who is pushing NASA to incorporate more crew escape options into the shuttle and design future manned ships with greater safety margins.
One technical consideration against an Apollo-era type capsule is that its landings can be tough, exposing crewmembers to gravitation forces two or three times that experienced by shuttle astronauts.
"If you have somebody on the space station who is seriously not well and you want to get them down, a capsule is not going to be the way to do it," said Gutierrez.
The study notes actual Apollo equipment would not be suitable for use, nor would its blueprints, because manufacturing techniques and equipment have changed significantly since the capsules were built in the 1960s. Rather, contractors could tap an extensive library of drawings, technical reports, test results and qualifications, as well as retired Apollo-era engineers, to design a derivative system.
Boeing is one of three contractor teams developing proposals for the Orbital Space Plane. Its competitors are Lockheed Martin and a joint-venture of Orbital Sciences Corp., and Northrop Grumman. NASA has contracts with the firms totaling $135 million and expects to begin reviewing proposals next year.