For those who remember the pre-space-shuttle-era adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the idea of a space rocket that takes off and lands tail-first seems quite natural. Now, more than half a century after those space heroes first appeared in comics and the movies, technology may finally be catching up with science-fiction fantasy.
In March, NASA launched a competition to design and build a new family of reusable rockets that would eventually replace the space shuttle and other satellite launchers. The shuttles are complicated machines based on early 1970s technology that are expensive to operate and require long turn-around times between missions.
Two teams NASA selected in March, Lockheed and Rockwell International, proposed rockets that would take off vertically and land horizontally like the current space shuttle. But last week the third team, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, submitted a design for a rocket that takes off and lands vertically, which some experts believe would give the rockets greater flexibility in choosing launch sites and cut preparation time between flights.
This new generation of reusable rockets could fundamentally change the way payloads are put into space. NASA's ultimate goal is to turn the space launching business over to private industry, then let the government and other customers contract for launch services when needed. Privatizing space launches would let NASA concentrate on research rather than operations and encourage the development of a U.S. commercial launch industry that could compete with other nations.
The push for privatization has become more urgent since the Republican takeover of Congress last fall. House Speaker Newt Gingrich wants the agency to cut about $10 billion in spending by the year 2002 to help balance the budget. And many Republicans -- including space buffs like Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Pressler and House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Robert S. Walker -- believe Americans are far more concerned about ending deficit spending than about NASA space launches.
Given the current cost-cutting mood, NASA is desperate to show it is reinventing itself as a leaner, meaner agency. Encouraging the development of a new generation of rockets operated by private industry may be its best shot at survival. Getting government out of the launch business is a great idea in principle. But so far, no one has rushed forward to risk the billions of dollars it would take.