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White House Approves Design for New, Manned Spaceships

White House Approves Design
For New, Manned Spaceships

By William J. Broad

The White House has approved NASA’s plan to replace America’s aging fleet of winged spaceships with a new generation of vehicles meant to carry human explorers back to the Moon and onward to Mars and beyond, aerospace experts said Thursday.

The new rockets and spaceships are a radical departure for the space program, rearranging the components of the space shuttle into a new design expected to be more powerful than the shuttle but also safer. The shuttle has had two fatal accidents in 114 missions.

“It’s a thumbs-up for NASA to pursue the shuttle-derived vehicle,” said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and an adviser to the NASA initiative. “The question is the schedule, not the basic approach.”

Other experts, who refused to be identified because the space agency will not formally announce the proposal until Monday, also spoke about the plan Thursday.

The redesign proposal was first reported in August by agency officials and private experts. Unlike the shuttle, the new vehicles would separate the jobs of hauling people and cargo into orbit and would put the payloads atop the rockets — as far as possible from the dangers of firing engines and falling debris, which were responsible for the accidents that destroyed the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.

But by making the rockets from shuttle parts, the new plan would draw on the shuttle’s existing network of thousands of contractors and technologies, in theory speeding its completion and lowering its cost.

The plan has been ready for unveiling for roughly six weeks but was held up because of delays in White House approval.

The aerospace experts said Michael D. Griffin, NASA’s administrator, met with White House officials on Wednesday and won a preliminary approval for the project despite continuing questions about how to pay for it.

One problem is that the existing shuttle is still consuming a large share of the agency’s budget.