US privatises Shuttle production

Next generation in space: Embarrassed Nasa chief looks to recapture technological lead

Twenty-five years old and its image tarnished by the Challenger disaster of 1986, the fleet of American space shuttles is facing replacement by a new generation of privately operated orbiters that one day might take not only satellites and scientific experiments into space, but perhaps tourists,too.

On a landmark day for the venerable NASA space agency, which has maintained complete control over the United States' space programme since 1958, the US government yesterday turned to private industry to develop a new breed of shuttles with a mission to take pay- loads into space more efficiently and, above all, more cheaply than is possible with the existing shuttles.

Vice-President Al Gore announced at a ceremony in California that the contract to develop a prototype of the new space craft had been awarded to Lockheed Martin. The aerospace and defence company, which defeated high-stakes competition from McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International, is proposing a stubby, delta-shaped vehicle, which, like the existing ones, will take off vertically and land horizontally.

With the new ship, the US will attempt to regain what used to be its unassailable dominance of space. In the past decade, NASA has watched in dismay as almost two-thirds of the world market for rocket launchings has slipped away to other competitors, especially the European Ariane space programme.

Earlier this year, the chief of NASA, Daniel Goldin, shocked the US space industry when, in delivering testimony on Capitol Hill, he bemoaned the extent to which America had allowed its lead to fall behind. The entire US space community "should hang its head in shame", he said. "We can't go on like this. It's embarrassing."

The drive to privatise NASA's operations is also being fuelled by restiveness in Congress with the sky-high costs of the Shuttle programme, caused in part by the overriding concern with safety following the 1986 disaster. Already this year, contracts have been signed with the United Space Alliance, which is a joint venture of Lockheed Margin and Rockwell International, to take over from October much of the management of the existing shuttle fleet.

However, the task for Lockheed Martin will not be an easy one. The craft must be totally resuable, be able to go from Earth into orbit in a single- stage launch - without shedding any parts, such as boosters or fuel tanks. It will "move as fast as the fastest rocket and manoeuvre with the agility of a jet", Mr Gore said. "This is the craft that can carry America's dreams aloft and lead our nation into a sparkling new century."

Above all, however, the new craft must be cheaper to operate. A single launch of the existing shuttles typically costs around $500m, which translates to about $10,000 per pound. The new shuttle will be expected to fly into space at a cost of just $1,000 per pound.

The initial contract awarded yesterday is worth $941m for the development of a single prototype aircraft which will be half the size of the operational machine. Scheduled to be ready for tests in 1999, the prototype will only be required to demonstrate its flying abilities.

NASA, meanwhile, has said that it expects to be able to keep the existing fleet of shuttles flying until about 2010.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable