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Orlando Sentinel October 18, 2005

Aerospace giants vie for prize

Northrop Grumman and Boeing compete with Lockheed Martin to build NASA's next manned spaceship.

By Tamara Lytle

WASHINGTON -- The nation's top aerospace companies are competing for one of NASA's most prized contracts in decades -- building the next manned spaceship.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle is supposed to take astronauts to the international space station by 2012, to the moon by 2018 and eventually to Mars. It likely will be the only manned vehicle for getting to and from space that NASA builds for a generation.

"It's of great interest and importance," said Doug Stanley of the National Institute of Aerospace at Georgia Tech, who led NASA's efforts to design its moon and Mars program. "It costs a lot of money to build one of these so you don't get to build them very often."

Last week, one of the two competing teams pulled a black cloth off its scale model to unveil its vision of an Apollo-like space capsule. That team, of Northrop Grumman and Boeing, is competing against Lockheed Martin in a race with high stakes for both companies. The contract will provide decades of steady NASA work.

"It's important to each of them because of the shrink-down of the aerospace industry," said Charles Vick, senior fellow in space and defense policy at the policy analysis group GlobalSecurity.org. "It's long-term employment, long-term funding."

NASA will issue its final instructions to the competitors at the end of this month, spokesman J.D. Harrington said. The space agency wants to go back to a capsule system similar to the one under the Apollo program that first took astronauts to the moon.

Each team will have 90 days to tweak its proposal, and then NASA will have 90 days to pick the winner, which is expected to happen next spring.

"It's the largest hardware contract in a long, long time," said John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "For someone that wants to be in the human spaceflight business, it is almost the only game in town."

NASA has been exceptionally specific about what it wants for the vehicle that will replace the space shuttle.

The CEV would launch on a solid rocket booster originally designed for the shuttle fleet and carry six astronauts on trips to the international space station. Eventually, that same vehicle would take four astronauts on the longer trip to lunar orbit.

It would be shaped like a capsule -- unlike the winged shuttle -- and would parachute back to Earth.

For trips to the moon, it would rendezvous in space with a cargo rocket carrying the propulsion system that would then take it out of Earth orbit, as well as the lunar landing module that would carry astronauts to the moon's surface.

It's expected to cost $105 billion to get the moon-Mars program up and running. Sources said the CEV portion -- which is the first step -- will cost about $5 billion to develop.

The Northrop-Boeing design for the CEV has three parts. The middle command module is where the astronauts would be during takeoff from Kennedy Space Center -- and the vehicle that also would bring them home. The squat capsule would be almost twice as large as the cramped Apollo modules but weigh only a little more because of advances in materials, avionics and other technology since the 1960s.

That makes it "much, much different than your father's Apollo," said Leonard Nicholson of Boeing, the deputy manager of the team.

The command module, which would parachute back to land in the Western U.S., would be reusable.

The command module also would be protected on top by a cone with a tower on it. That tower would hold a smaller rocket designed to carry the astronauts to safety in an aborted launch. The bottom of the command module would be attached to a service module, which would cover the command module's heat shield during launch.

Lockheed has not released any recent information on its design. An earlier version pictured in Popular Mechanics showed a winged plane. But NASA's design parameters specify a capsule.

"They're going to have to scramble to get caught up and they haven't got that much time," Vick said.

But Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed's program manager for the CEV, said his company already has extensive experience building capsules for NASA and will not have trouble modifying its original design. He would not release details about the current plan, other than to say it meets NASA's requirements.

"It's something we're right up to speed on. We do not feel behind," he said.

Lockheed has been involved in many NASA projects, including the Hubble space telescope, Mars rovers, the Mars Pathfinder, and the Viking missions to Mars. The Northrop and Boeing team cites its experience with the Apollo command and service modules, the shuttle, the international space station and the Apollo lunar lander.

Space experts say two of the biggest factors determining who wins the competition will be cost and schedule.

W. Henry Lambright, political scientist at the Maxwell School at Syracuse, said NASA must compete for money to build the CEV at a time when Hurricane Katrina aid and the war in Iraq are among the other priorities for scarce budget dollars. Both the shuttle and the international space station ran into cost overruns.

"The country is not going to be in the mood for cost overruns," Lambright said.

Schedule also will be a factor. Congress has put heavy pressure on NASA to get the CEV flying quickly. After the shuttle retires in 2010 the U.S. won't have its own transportation into space until the CEV is ready.

But Stanley said sticking to the schedule and the budget will be easier with the CEV because its retro technology already has been proven.

"We're not trying to push the barriers of technology or experience," Stanley said. "We're trying to do something realistic."

Copyright 2005, Orlando Sentinel