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.