Biggest development race since the Apollo project will give ISS crews initial rescue capability by 2008

NASA is to speed up the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) programme by two years to provide crews at the International Space Station with an initial rescue capability by 2008.

The move, signalled last week to competing contractors at the International Air and Space Symposium in Dayton, Ohio, is expected to be officially announced around the end of July and will give NASA its most challenging development timescale since the Apollo project in the 1960s.

The OSP was planned before the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, and the decision to speed it up will not affect the timescale for selection of the winning system due late in the second quarter of 2004, says the agency. Competing designs are being developed by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and a Northrop Grumman-Orbital Sciences team. Full-scale crew rescue capability is still on target for around 2010, while the target for routine crew transfer is "no later" than 2012, it adds.

Driven by NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, the speed-up plan is seen as a reaction to the Columbia accident and US concerns over relying on the Russian Soyuz system. It could also heap more criticism on an already controversial programme as it threatens to make forthcoming flight tests of the X-37 OSP demonstrator largely irrelevant. The shorter timescale is expected to push OSP away from the technically more challenging winged "mini-shuttle" that recovers on a runway, to a simple ballistic capsule that returns via parachute or parafoil.

NASA expects to freeze the technology for the OSP in six months "because we've found out with the Space Shuttle that the engines took longer than expected to develop, and there were issues with things like tiles. So if the technology is there we'll go with that," says the agency. Preliminary design review (PDR) is now set for around November next year, with critical design review (CDR) to follow around one year later.

In recognition of the OSP contracting schedule, NASA is also looking at a possible acceleration of the X-37 which was set up to support the 2010 timescale. The approach and landing test vehicle is on track for flight tests late next year and, as now scheduled, is still expected to contribute data in time for the OSP PDR.

"The issue with the X-37 is data coming through in time for the CDR," says X-37 project manager Dan Dumbacher, who adds that orbital launch vehicle tests to evaluate the all-important thermal protection system are planned for 2006 on an expendable launch vehicle.

Source: Flight International