Even while NASA searches for the next generation of reusable space vehicle, the agency's assistant director for propulsion says the present space shuttle should be around for the next 10 to 15 years.
The shuttle, with its Utah-built boosters, is the first generation of reusable launch vehicles, said Robert Sackheim, assistant director for Space Propulsion Systems at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Sackheim spoke recently during the NASA Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Exposition, held at Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.
The exposition featured NASA's X-34 and X-40A vehicles and mock-ups of the X-43 and X-37 technology demonstrators. These new reusable vehicles are experimental systems in the drive to reduce the cost of taking payload into orbit, from the present $10,000 a pound to $1,000 a pound.
"One of the options in this next generation could be . . . upgrading the shuttle itself and keeping it going," Sackheim said.
Officials of Thiokol, which makes the solid-rocket boosters, have proposed several upgrades of the boosters "and we're looking at that," he added.
A candidate for the next generation that has Utah connections is the VentureStar which, if developed, would be a space plane that launches from a vertical position, flies into space, delivers cargo and returns to land on a runway — all without boosters. The half-scale demonstrator for the VentureStar is a project called the X-33.
Alliant Techsystems' plant in Clearfield made the liquid-hydrogen fuel tanks for the X-33, and unmanned test flights were to land at Dugway Proving Ground in the western Utah desert.
However, the X-33 is troubled by problems with its fuel tank. A NASA report about the fuel tank difficulty may be released soon, according to NASA.
If one of the experimental projects is developed as the next generation of reusable space vehicle, a smooth transition must be assured, he said.