NASA has awarded contracts totalling $767 million to 22 companies under the first round of its $4.8 billion Space Launch Initiative (SLI) programme to develop technology for a second-generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV).

The contracts cover risk-reduction work in 10 technology areas ranging from propulsion to crew survival systems. NASA says the studies will not result in a specific vehicle design, but lead to technologies that will be made available to all US companies for use in future launch systems.

The five-year SLI is intended to reduce the technology, schedule and business risks sufficiently to "enable at least two options for a mid-decade competition and decision to proceed with full-scale development" of a second-generation RLV more reliable and affordable than the Shuttle, says Art Stephenson, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which is leading the programme.

Despite growing industry scepticism NASA is still planning for a new RLV to become operational "early in the next decade". The US agency also still hopes the vehicle will be developed commercially, but with industry estimates of the development cost as high as $20 billion, a purely commercial venture is unlikely. Stephenson says NASA will not know how much it will cost until the SLI programme is complete. "We expect it will be considerably less than the $30 billion cost of the Shuttle," he says.

Source: Flight International