AF Holds Edge Over NASA in Drive for Jumbo Booster

Times Staff Writer

For now, it is prosaically called the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle--a jumbo rocket that the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say should be able to heave 50 to 75 tons or more into orbit at a fraction of the price now being paid.

And in recent weeks, it has suddenly become the subject of a resurgent debate as the American space program rebuilds from the wreckage of last year's Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Both the Air Force and NASA want to build the rocket themselves. Right now, to the alarm of champions of the civilian space program, the Air Force has the upper hand.

At NASA, engineers foresee that two or three launches by the jumbo rocket could deliver into orbit the entire structure for a permanent manned space station in the 1990s. The rocket, they say, might even make possible the simultaneous launching of dual planetary missions.

In the Pentagon, designers of the Reagan Administration's intensely controversial "Star Wars" missile defense system envision that the new super booster will launch massive orbiting platforms where small missiles and "smart rocks," non-explosive maneuverable projectiles, would be positioned to intercept enemy missiles.

According to congressional and Administration sources, President Reagan approved the Pentagon's approach at a meeting last December with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Office, which runs the "Star Wars" program.

As a result of the session, the Administration asked Congress for $250 million to begin developing the new jumbo rocket under the aegis of the Pentagon.

That left NASA, which was focusing on getting its space shuttle flying again, on the sidelines in what it considered its own domain. And it left friends of NASA troubled.

"We are dealing here with a very important policy question," said Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the science, technology and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "If you look at the curve on space spending, you see a tremendous surge on the military side, and it is obvious that any major decision such as this adds to the strength of the Department of Defense and takes away from the strength of NASA."

'Biased Toward Military'

Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), the second-ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, complained that the White House is "strongly biased toward the military uses of space."

"The funding for the space program is now about 3-to-1 military," Brown said. "We just have to begin to swing back to something closer to a 50-50 balance between defense and civilian space if we are going to maintain any real progress."

The gravity of the tussle over the heavy-lift booster has been exaggerated by other developments: the decision to give the Air Force the lead role in developing the hypersonic 21st-Century aerospace plane, dubbed the "Orient Express"; the military's priority for space aboard the shuttle when it resumes flying; the concern of NASA's European partners over the military's role in the space station; the Administration's decision to turn commercial satellite launches over to private industry and its slow pace in acquiring unmanned rockets to supplement the shuttle.

Hoping to avoid open rivalry, top NASA and Air Force officials have set out at least to agree on their general requirements for a new jumbo booster. With the benefit of the civilian space agency's comments, the Air Force expects within days to set in motion the first step toward soliciting contractor proposals on a project that would be expected to mount into the billions.

At Odds Over Direction

Despite acknowledgment that a new launcher must serve both NASA and the Air Force, however, the two agencies are sharply at odds over how to proceed.

Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. has called for beginning with "a clean sheet of paper" to design a launcher that could orbit oversized payloads at a pound-in-orbit cost of one-tenth that of the space shuttle.

But NASA engineers, long before the Administration asked Congress for money for the new booster to launch "Star Wars" hardware, favored using the major components of the shuttle system in a heavy-lift rocket.

Marshall Space Flight Center Director J. R. Thompson said last week that NASA's so-called "shuttle-derived vehicle" could be developed for about $1.25 billion and could be ready for launching in 1993.

NASA would replace the manned shuttle orbiter with a huge cargo compartment. This version of a heavy lifter would use the same solid rocket booster fuel tanks, and main engines now on the shuttle. Detailed cost comparisons of the Air Force and NASA proposals apparently have not been developed. But knowledgeable congressional sources estimate that a heavy-lift vehicle employing shuttle hardware could be developed for a little more than half the cost of a new jumbo built from the ground up, as proposed by the Air Force.

Costs Tied to Technology

But proponents of the new Air Force booster contend that with the updated technology of an all-new launcher, there is a better chance to make a massive reduction in launching costs.

In Congress, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) is one of the Air Force's few supporters in its tug-of-war with NASA. Hollings not only chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees NASA's budget, but also serves on the military appropriations subcommittee.

Hollings said in an interview that he favors Air Force management of the jumbo rocket because NASA, burdened by its recovery from the shuttle disaster and its inauguration of the space station program, would take longer to get the job done.

"I believe we need that heavy-lift vehicle, and I think we ought to get committed and get going," Hollings said. But he conceded that it may be easier to win congressional approval for putting the program in NASA than for giving it to the Air Force.

The comments of other senators and House members bear that judgment out.

"It appears clear that the intent is for NASA to play a very minimal role," complained Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.). "I am concerned that this is a backward way to approach the development of this vehicle. A common-sense approach . . . would be to build upon and take full advantage of the investments that the nation has already made."

Warns of Impact on NASA

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) warned that the Administration's proposal would be a step along the way toward taking NASA out of the space transportation business. In that case, he said, "NASA . . . might as well close its doors."

Beneath the jurisdictional battle between NASA and the Air Force is the question of whether the jumbo booster is necessary at all.

Congressional sources who declined to be identified said that the Administration generated its request for $250 million for the Air Force without an orderly study of whether the vehicle was needed or who should design it. The Administration transmitted the proposal to Congress, one source said, purely to speed the deployment of defensive weapons in space.

Air Force Secretary Aldridge told a Senate hearing that joint studies with NASA have shown a need to get started with an advanced-technology, heavy-lift booster that could be available by about 1997.

"If it is a new technology focused on Department of Defense requirements and Department of Defense operational capability in the future," he said, "then we think we ought to be in the lead for it, working with NASA and taking advantage of their expertise. It would not be shutting them out of the door."

Foes Remain Doubtful

"Star Wars" opponents in Congress remain unconvinced, and they probably have the strength at least to block the Air Force's initial $250-million request.

"It depends entirely on whether you think we are going to put a military system such as SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) up in space," Rep. Brown said. "I don't think we are going to put one up there, so I don't think we need a heavy-lift vehicle.

"The space station can be put up with the existing fleet of shuttles, with the help of some expendable rockets, without much difficulty. As for the Air Force and Defense Department's long-range requirements, I just don't think they are going to be materializing."

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