Reagan Orders Shuttle, Limits NASA Mission
President Reagan on Friday ordered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to go forward with construction of a new $2.8-billion space shuttle and announced that the space agency will get out of the business of launching commercial satellites.
Coming after six months of intense debate within the Administration, the long-anticipated decisions were intended to put the debilitating Jan. 28 Challenger disaster in the agency’s past.
Administration officials said they expect the new orbiter, to be built by Rockwell International Corp., to join the three orbiters now in the shuttle fleet in early 1991.
Reagan’s Prepared Statement
“Without the fourth orbiter, NASA’s capabilities would be severely limited and long-term projects for the development of space would have to be either postponed, or even canceled,” the President said in a prepared statement delivered by Larry Speakes, deputy press secretary.
The additional capacity “will enable our shuttles to accomplish the mission for which they were originally intended and permit the United States to move forward with new exciting endeavors like the building of a permanently manned space station.”
More significant than the expected move to replace the orbiter destroyed in the accident was the decision to take the government out of commercial satellite launching, leaving private industry to challenge foreign competitors for launch contracts. It formally abandoned an original goal of the shuttle program--to pay its own way by hauling commercial cargoes into space.
Reagan predicted that restricting the shuttle to government payloads, both military and civilian, will stimulate development of a private satellite launching industry.
“Free enterprise corporations,” he said, “will become a highly competitive method of launching commercial satellites and doing those things which do not require a manned presence in space. . . . NASA and our shuttles can’t be committing their scarce resources to things which can be done better and cheaper by the private sector.
“Instead, NASA and the four shuttles should be dedicated to payloads important to national security and foreign policy, and even more, on exploration, pioneering, and developing new technologies and uses of space.”
Has 44 Launch Contracts
NASA now has 44 contracts for commercial satellite launches aboard shuttles between now and 1994. Rather than cancel them, the Administration will have a task force establish a priority list, and the payloads will be carried whenever space is available in shuttle cargo bays.
Speakes estimated that about 15 of them can be launched before the contracts expire in 1995. Customers who fail to get one of the early flight assignments will be forced to look elsewhere for a launcher.
Although Reagan had made it plain that he favored building a new orbiter to replace Challenger, NASA, the Defense Department, the Transportation Department and the Office of Management and Budget had debated for months over a plan for its financing.
Under the plan announced Friday, the Administration will send Congress a supplemental budget request, asking for an additional NASA authorization of $272 million in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Beyond that, Speakes said the new shuttle will be paid for with funds saved by NASA during the two years its shuttle fleet is grounded, and by reductions in other programs in both NASA and other government agencies.
Rules Out Station Cuts
However, he ruled out cuts in the the $8-billion space station program, undertaken as the chief new space initiative of the Reagan Administration.
Although NASA had hoped to hold a role in commercial launch services and had staunchly insisted that it could not pay for a new shuttle with its existing budget, its reaction to the White House announcement was one of hearty endorsement.
Shuttle program chief Richard H. Truly said his reaction was one of “delight.” He brushed aside the question of where funds would be found in future years, saying: “The dollars will just simply have to be worked out.”
NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher said the decision demonstrated Reagan’s “determination that the United States maintain world leadership in space.”
The space agency’s grounded shuttle fleet is now scheduled to return to flight status in February, 1988, after the redesign and verification testing of the solid rocket booster that caused the Challenger accident and the death of the shuttle’s seven crew members.
Levels Yearly Costs
The 1991 schedule for the arrival of the new vehicle is designed to hold down the cost in any given year.
While expressing confidence that private industry will be drawn into the satellite launching business by the prospect of new space profits, the Administration is counting upon government development of new expendable launchers to pave the way.
The Air Force last week awarded four $5-million contracts to aerospace firms to design a new medium launch vehicle. A winner will be selected from the designs submitted by McDonnell-Douglas, Martin-Marietta, Hughes and General Dynamics.
Although designed for the Air Force, one of the requirements of the new rocket is that it be usable for commercial payloads.
Madeline Johnson, director of the Transportation Department’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told reporters at the White House that private launch services could be in operation before the end of the decade.
Assumes Policy Is Set
“The launch companies tell us that they can have vehicles ready and be ready to launch them two-and-a-half to three years from the day that the clear policy decision is made,” she said, “so I assume that would be today.”
Rockwell officials said the decision to go to work on the new orbiter will mean an increase of about 2,000 jobs--1,000 of them at Downey and 1,000 at Palmdale. About half of the work will be done by Rockwell itself, and half by subcontractors.
The decision to replace the orbiter also means that the new shuttle launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base, to be put in a standby status, will be reactivated in 1992.
The Administration’s long delay in arriving at its decision left Congress little time to act on the request for the $272 million in the budget now being completed.
House Has Own Plan
Earlier this week, the House space subcommittee went ahead with a plan of its own, authorizing construction of the orbiter replacement and development of expendable launch vehicles for commercial satellite launches.
The plan, authored by Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), was very similar to the Administration proposal adopted by the President, except that it left the door open for the shuttle to continue launching commercial payloads.
Staff writer Ralph Vartabedian contributed to this story from Los Angeles.