January 28, 1996
Web posted at: 11:20 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Miles O'Brien
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- Ten years ago, space shuttle Challenger took off on an unusually cold Florida morning. Seventy-three seconds later, all seven astronauts aboard perished in the most disastrous accident the U.S. space program has ever seen.
"It was silence, definitely silence. You could hear a pin drop in the NASA control center," said Bob Sieck, shuttle operations director. "Everybody was in shock and reacted the way normal human beings do. They were pretty much frozen with their thoughts and with what they were doing."
In the wake of the Challenger explosion, NASA was left shaken to its core. The limits of NASA technology became apparent to the nation. Now, 49 shuttle missions later, NASA is looking beyond the shuttle to what comes next.
NASA is riding on yesterday's technology. The shuttle was designed in the 1960s and 1970s, and it may be another 20 years before NASA trades in the fleet for a new generation of reusable rockets.
But, NASA astronauts aren't complaining.
"We don't need a new one now. The space shuttle has been doing fine, even though a lot of the technology is, by today's standard, old. It has proven to be a very reliable vehicle," astronaut Leroy Chiao said.
However, there is growing concern at NASA about the reliability of the shuttles' aging equipment, and its maintenance. The cost of replacement components for the four-vehicle fleet is rising, and suppliers are becoming harder to find. Sieck's main concern is the cost- effectiveness of equipment maintenance over the next decade. (170K AIFF sound or 170K WAV sound)
Thus, NASA is exploring new alternatives to the shuttle. In the next three years, NASA plans to spend nearly $1 billion helping private industry build an experimental rocket, the X-33. The X-33 is an unmanned prototype to pave the way for the next generation of manned reusable launch vehicles, known as RLVs, that could reach low earth orbit without shedding rockets or fuel tanks.
"From the very nose of the bird to the tail of the bird, we are starting with a clean sheet of paper and saying, 'We are going to have a bird that is easy to operate and has robustness built into it,'" said Gary Payton, director of space transportation.
NASA officials promised Congress a shuttle program that would be easy and robust when they sold Congress on the idea a generation ago. But the reality never came close to the sale's pitch. Critics say that's because NASA was touting an untested concept.
It's a lesson that X-33 designers have learned from, space analyst John Logsdon said.
"Unlike the shuttle program, we are trying the technology first and then making the promises, rather than making the promises and finding the technology can't meet them," Logsdon said.
By July, NASA plans to choose one of three proposed X-33 designs: Lockheed and Martin's so-called lifting body, Rockwell's shuttle-like craft, or a rocket based on McDonnell Douglas's DC-X, which has flown eight times in the New Mexico desert.
In fact, new technology may make way for a much simpler and more efficient reusable spacecraft. Rocket engines, heat shielding materials and flight control electronics have drastically improved since the shuttle was designed.
"What you are seeing is the result of five years of work with the government to get people to realize that RLVs can really be made," Pete Conrad of McDonnell Douglas said.
All of this, in theory, makes for a much more streamlined operation. NASA hopes for cost reductions across the board, especially the cost of lifting payloads and people into orbit. In turn, NASA hopes the cost reductions will entice private industry to build the next generation of reusable rockets, because NASA can't afford to replace the shuttle on its own.
"We've got to go from thousands of people necessary to prepare the vehicle to preferably dozens of people required to get the bird ready to fly," Payton said.
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