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Space Shuttle To Cost $317M More

August 26, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A wedge-shaped rocket plane that would replace NASA’s aging space shuttle is behind schedule and will cost about $317.6 million more than planned, congressional auditors report.

Lockheed Martin Corp., builder of the prototype X-33, encountered problems with the reusable spacecraft’s three key technologies: lightweight fuel tanks, rocket engines and heat shielding.

These problems pushed the first flight test back 16 months, to July 2000, the investigators said in a General Accounting Office report.

NASA joined with Lockheed and other companies in plans to produce a craft that would bring cargo and passengers to space for one-tenth the cost of the space shuttle.

The original plans had the space agency paying $912.4 million. Lockheed was to contribute $211.6 million, but the technical problems increased the defense contractor’s costs by $75 million.

Lockheed may classify the additional expenses as independent research and then bill the government for them as overhead for other contracts. Combined with increased NASA personnel costs, the GAO estimates the government will end up paying $1.23 billion.

The experimental program’s ultimate goal is to produce a commercially owned and operated craft called the Venture Star, a space plane twice the size of the X-33 that would blast off to orbit in a single stage, unlike current systems that require multiple rockets. Returning to Earth, the craft would glide down and land like an airplane.

The report also said that NASA should look closer at the impact of using the Venture Star to support the International Space Station. With less cargo room, it would take two to three Venture Star flights to equal one by the space shuttle. This increase in dockings with the space station might disrupt the stable, quiet times needed for scientific research.

``We are suggesting that NASA more clearly identify steps as this thing progresses to be able to verify that they are moving towards the goal,″ the GAO’s Jerry Herley said Thursday.

The Venture Star was to be operational by 2004, but with the delays development may not start until a year later, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics.

Rohrabacher complained that the Clinton administration ``put all of its technology eggs in one fragile basket,″ when it should be funding competing experimental designs for space planes.

``This administration’s approach to developing next-generation reusable launch vehicles isn’t working,″ he said.

The X-33, being built in Palmdale, Calif., is scheduled to start a series of 15 test flights next summer.

NASA is also developing two other types of experimental spacecraft, the X-34, an unmanned rocket to be launched from a converted airliner and the X-37, which will be carried into orbit by the space shuttle, fly to higher orbits and then land like an airplane.

More than three dozen technologies will be tested in two flights by the craft starting in 2002.

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