Florida Researchers Shoot For The Stars

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While the investigation of the Columbia crash continues, researchers are already working on the shuttle fleet's replacement. The University of Florida is the lead institution in the Institute for Future Space Transport, which also includes researchers from six other universities in a $16 million initiative. The Associated Press reports researchers there are looking into new engine technologies (including the supersonic combustion ramjet), stronger and more reliable spacecraft (including ways to rid the shuttle of the troublesome fragile tiles), improved systems to monitor the health of the spacecraft and its life-support systems, and better ways to integrate all of the spacecraft's complicated systems. To avoid the high cost of rocket launches, NASA and the university researchers are designing a spacecraft that departs from a runway, much like a conventional fixed-wing aircraft. [more]The report indicates crew safety will be a critical factor in the research, especially after the Columbia and Challenger disasters. Operational costs are another concern. It costs U.S. taxpayers about $10,000 per pound to get the current shuttle design into space. NASA wants to reduce the next-generation shuttle's costs to about $100 a pound. That would offer a huge savings, as the 2004 federal budget includes $1 billion for the Space Launch Initiative, dividing the money between the current orbiters and next-generation space shuttle technology. The three remaining shuttles -- Endeavor, Discovery and Atlantis -- are expected to keep flying until 2020.