When the project was proposed late last year, the plan was to have a vehicle capable of serving as an emergency return option for the crew of the International Space Station by 2010.
But the loss Feb. 1 of the shuttle Columbia - and the ensuing attention given to questions about the shuttles' long-term safety - made accelerating the space plane project a priority. Almost immediately after the Columbia accident, National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Sean O'Keefe said he'd challenged program managers to get the spacecraft built as quickly as possible.
Kim Newton, a spokeswoman at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, where the space plane project is based, said NASA asked contractors this week to let the agency know whether it would be possible to move the timetable up to 2008.
"We're really saying, 'This is the intent,'" Newton said.
The earlier date has been an informal target for some time. O'Keefe told the NASA Advisory Council in June that 2008 might be a workable target.
There are three teams working under NASA contracts for design concepts and technology development for the space plane: Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and a cooperative effort between Northrup Grumman Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp.
The three were awarded development contracts this spring, with the idea that NASA would pick a design and a main contractor by the end of next year, almost certainly from among the three. That may now happen much sooner, even though NASA does not yet have budget estimates or specifications beyond a one-page list released earlier this year.
All that is known about the vehicle is that it should hold at least four people, be safer, easier to launch and more maneuverable in orbit than the shuttle, and that it will ride into space atop an expendable rocket, such as Boeing's Delta 4 or Lockheed's Atlas 5.
NASA expects to release a more detailed list of requirements next month. Meanwhile, contractors are still weighing fundamental decisions, such as whether the craft would have wings and land on a runway, like the space shuttle, or be an Apollo-style capsule that plummets back to Earth.
While there is money in NASA's five-year spending plan for the space plane, there is no total price tag yet or a sense of how much more it would cost to build it faster.
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