In an austere trailer parked in Downey, a former astronaut and a team of scientists are pushing forward on the design of what someday may be the world's most advanced manned spacecraft.
The Spartan setting at Rockwell International Corp. is at the center of a crucial debate over national priorities surrounding the ambitious and costly program. Known as the National Aero-Space Plane, the spacecraft has become a focal point in a new space race--not just against the old Soviet rivals of the moon race 25 years ago but against Europe and Japan.
If supporters are correct in asserting that the NASP is a viable and worthwhile project, then the United States stands to retain its leadership in aerospace technology well into the next century. If they are wrong, NASP threatens to become a boondoggle at a time when domestic industry needs to make the right decisions in order to face mounting foreign competition.
The NASP, also called the X-30, aims to revolutionize space travel. Unlike rockets thrust into orbit on a pillar of fire, this craft would provide "airline access" to space, bringing the long-sought revolution of safety and low cost that has never been realized with the space shuttle, supporters say.
The effort is so technically risky, however, that critics doubt that launch costs will ever be reduced below those of current rockets or that any useful mission will be found for the craft. And they dispute the contention that the program will spin off important engine and materials technology for the U.S. commercial aircraft industry, saying they doubt that the commercial payoff, even if it comes, will be worth the cost.
When President Ronald Reagan introduced the program before Congress in 1986, he dubbed the spacecraft the "Tokyo Express" and glibly said it would ferry passengers between Washington and Tokyo in only two hours, a purpose that was never a serious possibility. The faulty impression created by Reagan dogs the program to this day, despite the best efforts of promoters to assert that the NASP's real benefit would be as a low-cost way to space.
At a cost of $5 billion, which is being paid for mostly by the Pentagon, the NASP comes at a time when large-scale military research programs must fit into smaller budgets. The issue with NASP is not only its military value, but its potential technological value to U.S. industry in the distant future.
In Downey, enthusiasm is running high.
Astronaut Joe Engle, a space shuttle veteran, spends many of his days in the cockpit of a simulator for the future craft, perfecting routines for it to roll down a runway like an airplane and then smoothly accelerate into Earth orbit.
"It is just like an airplane," Engle said recently, as he demonstrated the spacecraft's cockpit controls for Rep. Bob Traxler (D-Mich.), a major NASP supporter on a visit to Rockwell. "I don't want to give the impression that it doesn't require skill to fly, but it doesn't take any exorbitant amount of training."
Over the last three decades, the concept of flying an airplane into space orbit has become something of an aeronautical quest for the Holy Grail. Ever since the days of the X-15 rocket plane in the 1960s, industry and government leaders have dreamed of an aircraft that could fly at orbital velocity of 24 times the speed of sound.
"The jet engine revolutionized the world in a very real sense, because of what it did for transportation," Barry Waldman, Rockwell's vice president and national program director for NASP, said in an interview. "This is as big a quantum leap over the jet engine as the jet was over the propeller. I don't think anybody in 1939 could have foreseen what the jet engine would do for the world, and I don't think we can foresee what hypersonic technology will do."
NASP is supposed to reach space with a new type of jet engine, known as a supersonic combustion ramjet(scramjet) engine. It is a breed apart from anything in current use, so aerodynamically complex that several supercomputers are being used to design it. The estimated $5-billion cost would cover development of the technology and construction of two X-30 test craft.
The engine would burn liquid hydrogen fuel with oxygen that it would capture from the atmosphere, unlike rockets that carry their own liquid oxygen. That feature is supposed to make the NASP engine more efficient than any rocket and allow it to carry the wings, landing gear and controls to fly like an airplane.
Of course, a single type of engine can't do the whole job, and the craft will also need to carry a conventional turbojet engine with which to take off and a rocket engine for at least part of the trip into space and for orbital maneuvering. Indeed, the success of NASP is threatened by the weight of the additional propulsion systems.
The problems of even testing a scramjet engine have required massive new facilities, including an $18-million hypersonic wind tunnel being built in Ventura County. The Rockwell tunnel will create a Mach 25 stream of air for one one-thousandth of a second, exposing a few feet of engine material to the blast. But a complete scramjet engine can be tested only in actual flight.
Proponents of the X-30 describe it as a litmus test for determining whether the United States still has the ambition and the resources to be the world leader in spacecraft and space exploration. Five other nations are pursuing similar technology.
"The NASP is insurance that we will not be left behind the rest of the world," said Peter E. Glaser, a space expert in Cambridge, Mass., with the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little Inc. "In this technological club, you can withdraw and quickly lose your edge. In the case of NASP, you can't look at it in terms of this year's budget, but where we will be in the future if we don't do it."
So far, the United States is clearly ahead, but the massive project is trying to survive largely on military funding during a period of falling Pentagon budgets, which will be squeezed for almost every type of activity. The NASP has failed to move forward with the same urgency as the Apollo program did in the 1960s.
The NASP is purely a research program and is not tied to either a specific weapon or any immediate scientific goal. As such, it lacks the broad public appeal of a moon landing and has enjoyed less than overwhelming support even from the military.
Only last year, the Pentagon said it wanted to drop out of the program altogether, but then reversed that position after Vice President Dan Quayle threw his support behind the program.
"The NASP funding history has been all over the map, which tells you that it is a nice thing to have but it is not so important that you want to fall on your sword to protect it," said one Air Force official in the Pentagon. "It is a sleeper of a program, not a huge, contentious issue. But it is a lot of money."
NASP is much smaller than programs such as the $70-billion B-2 bomber but is still a burden in the current tight fiscal environment. At $5 billion, it will be easily the most expensive experimental aircraft ever developed. Still, the program has been strongly supported in Congress.
The Pentagon and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are jointly funding NASP. Of this year's $254-million budget, the Pentagon is paying 76%. The 1991 budget will be $277 million and the 1992 budget $305 million.
A National Research Council report last year raised significant concerns about the technical challenge in the program and argued that the schedule was too optimistic.
Following the report, the program schedule was stretched out and the four contractors building NASP decided to form a consortium, rejecting the government's plan for them to compete among themselves. Rockwell ended up with a 40% share of the program and General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas and Pratt & Whitney took 20% shares.
Waldman, the national director for the consortium, said the teaming agreement was a move that strengthed the program and was not an indication of weakness. But inherent in the consortium was the contractors' decision to stop investing their own corporations' funds in the risky program and to rely fully on government funding. So far, the firms have invested $700 million.
Meanwhile, critics remain concerned that the government has failed to clearly state the purpose for NASP or its technology.
The Air Force has suggested that NASP could be used as a bomber, high-speed interceptor or reconnaissance plane. Critics question the legitimacy of those missions, asking, for example, why the Air Force needs more bombers after having just developed the B-1 and the B-2 bombers for more than $100 billion.
"The amount of money at stake here is too much just to build a neat airplane," said John Pike, associate director for space policy at the Federation of American Scientists. "I am amazed it is possible to get $5 billion out of American taxpayers on such a flimsy premise.'
Other critics blame Reagan's public relations misstep in 1986 for the current public impression that the purpose of the NASP program is constantly changing.
"When Reagan announced it, it was a people mover," said one congressional staff critic. "Now, it is something else--a bomber, a shuttle or something else. Let's define our needs and then solve them, not come up with a new toy and then find some use for it. We have so many needs that we can't fund."
Indeed, the nation's two major commercial aircraft producers, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, have their own high-speed civil transport programs to develop jetliners that would fly at only 2.5 times the speed of sound. The two companies have kept their distance from NASP.
A generation ago, the United States pulled out of an international competition to build a supersonic transport, which resulted in Britain and France working jointly to build the uneconomical Concord. That decision probably strengthened the U.S. industry by enabling it to avoid committing resources to an economically unsuccessful project.
Boeing officials declined to publicly state their views on NASP, but one Boeing official said privately: "We have decided that hypersonics have no place in commercial transportation. Any fallout would be off in the future in the area of instrumentation or high-temperature materials."
Robert Gulcher, a Rockwell vice president closely involved in the NASP, acknowledged that Reagan's remark about the Tokyo Express "has been an albatross." But Gulcher and other NASP supporters defend the program on the basis that developing the technology and the potential for reducing future launch costs justify the program.
Japan, West Germany, France, Britain and the Soviet Union are all working on similar spacecraft, although in some cases with less ambitious technical goals. Only the United States, for example, is attempting to build an aircraft that will fly into orbit with a scramjet engine.
"We are in a technology war," Gulcher said. "This country has a phenomenal capability to develop technology. Our whole heritage has been that."
So far, the United States is the undisputed leader in the science of hypersonics, especially in the ability to put together all of the divergent engine, airframe and materials technologies that will be needed. But the other nations are investing heavily and may be no more than just a few years behind, according to the Air Force's Robert R. Barthelemy, program manager for NASP.
"Our leadership is on the line," Barthelemy said. "Those other countries may be a few years behind us, but they are committed, and in this business three or four years go away fast."
Barthelemy believes that NASP will bring space launch costs down to a fifth or a tenth of those of the current generation of launchers.
"We have a set of goals that are so extraordinary that I can't imagine any other system that pushes technology so hard," he said in a recent interview.
Unlike the space shuttle, a NASP is supposed to require only 12 hours between flights for refueling and checkout. "If we fail, and it takes weeks or months to turn around, then we really haven't extended the technology very much beyond the space shuttle," he said.
Critics question whether the same erroneous assumptions made about the space shuttle are being repeated for the NASP. The economic justification for the shuttle was based on a very high launch rate of one a week. In practice, shuttles will never be launched more than once a month, and they have failed to achieve the goal of cutting launch costs below those of older rockets.
"If NASP could fly all of the European and Japanese payloads to space, then it might be justified," the Federation of American Scientists' Pike said. "The fundamental problem is that the American launch market is too small to justify NASP."
Such talk strikes many experts, however, as shortsighted thinking at a time that other nations are investing for the long term. John R. Harbison, a vice president at the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton, said lower launch costs will open up markets that do not now exist, much the same way the jet engine did.
"If you came to me with a process for converting manure into gold in space, it would be uneconomical to ship the manure up there," he said. "It is not likely that NASP by itself will be a moneymaker, but if we don't take the step, we will never get low-cost access to space and somebody else will step in. Then, we will be in the same place we are today with automobiles."
And beyond the intellectual arguments, many supporters have an almost visceral conviction that the NASP is the right thing for the nation, more important than a space station or a Mars mission at this point in history.
"It is an old dream to be able to go supersonic and fly into space," said Glaser, the space consultant. "In any field of technology, if there is a recurrent theme over 25 years, then there is more to it than a few people's pet project."
Designed to go 17,000 m.p.h., the X-30 will need new materials and a new engine. D2