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NASA spacecraft fly-off under study

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International

WASHINGTON, April 1 (UPI) -- NASA may borrow a development approach from the U.S. Air Force and seek to build multiple prototypes of its proposed new moon landing craft, and then test competing designs against one another in a celestial version of an airplane designers' fly-off.

Retired Adm. Craig E. Steidle, the new head of NASA's office responsible for developing the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, has suggested that a fly-off competition might yield a better spacecraft in the long run, with the agency choosing the best-performing design over its closest competitor.

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"We could have (CEV) prototypes flying as soon as 2009, possibly 2008," Steidle said. Under a development plan now under review at NASA headquarters in Washington, a request for industry proposals for the first automated test versions of the CEV may be released early next year.

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Over the next two years, industry teams would propose a series of designs to accomplish the space agency's initial tasks for the craft, the next generation of astronaut-carrying vehicles following the winged space shuttles. President George W. Bush announced on Jan. 14 the shuttles would be retired following completion of the International Space Station -- possibly as soon as 2010.

Operational, people-carrying versions of the craft might not be ready until two to three years after the shuttle stand-down. In the interim, Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, has said the United States might rely on the Russian Soyuz space capsules to continue to send crews to the station. The same situation applies today while the shuttle fleet is grounded following the Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia accident. As of now, the fleet is expected to resume spaceflight in the spring of 2005.

Under the space exploration plan announced by NASA, the CEV would have to emerge in several varieties, but all related to one another as a family of spaceships with both common and differing elements.

Depending on the development schedule by industry, the first piloted versions might fly crews to the space station. Others would carry equipment and systems directly to the moon. More advanced ships would support longer-duration, human missions on the moon. Future CEV versions would be capable of extended voyages into deep space, to land on Mars or even take crews to the moons of Jupiter on multi-decade-long space voyages.

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No manned spacecraft to date has been capable of such flights and there has been a distinct discontinuity in the U.S. approach to spacecraft. The U.S. Mercury capsules flew into space from 1961 to 1963 in missions that began with about a 10-minute, sub-orbital trajectory with Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and lengthened only to about 36 hours with the mission of Leroy "Gordo" Cooper, Jr.

The two-person, Gemini spacecraft that followed flew two-astronaut teams from 1965 to 1966, all in low-Earth orbit. The Apollo spacecraft carried trios of astronauts from 1968 to 1975, orbiting either Earth or the moon. The space shuttles have been flying since 1981 with only minor changes in their systems.

Russia's Vostok capsules, on the other hand, have followed a more comprehensive evolution. They began human missions in 1961 and continue to this day as automated research and reconnaissance craft. The Soyuz spacecraft, first flown with an astronaut in 1967, has undergone extensive modifications and remains the primary human spaceship of the Russian Federation. Russia may begin a phase-out of the Soyuz over the next three years, replacing it with a larger capsule capable of lifting six people to the space station. However, skeptics suggest funding for the new craft will not be available, leaving the Russians with their Soyuz for the foreseeable future.

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NASA sources told United Press International the agency has not yet made a firm decision on the fly-off plan.

For one thing, NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center in Houston are opposed to such a plan. They argue that the agency never has conducted a flying competition of alternative spacecraft designs in its 45-year history.

Other factors point to a fly-off, however. The military routinely conducts such competitions, as it did during development of the new Joint Strike Fighter.

Steidle's job, before coming to NASA, was directing the development of the JSF program in the Pentagon.

In addition, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences Corp. and Northrop Grumman, among other space industry firms, have expressed interest in competing to build the CEVs.

Meanwhile, Steidle has said he will choose a launch vehicle for the CEV by the end of this year. It could include new versions of the existing Delta and Atlas rockets, or an entirely new booster. An all-cargo version of the space shuttle, which replaces the winged orbiters with a cargo pod, also is under study to supplement the CEV with a heavy lifting, cargo-only capability.

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Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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