It's a scene reminiscent of NASA's glory days, back when men still walked on the moon. A space capsule descends under a canopy of three orange-and-blue parachutes, swaying gently in the breeze. The spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific at a leisurely 15 miles an hour, and the chutes settle into the water beside it. A recovery boat rumbles into position beside the spacecraft, and divers hit the water.
But it's not astronauts they're after, it's the chutes; except for ballast, the capsule is empty, a mock-up created to test the landing of a familiar-looking but actually all-new spaceship design. The divers are racing to rescue the chutes before they sink, so that they can be reused in another test. The capsule, too, will go again, after recovery by a cargo helicopter. This is space travel on a budget.
The test, conducted off the northern California coast on August 3 by a com-pany called, appropriately enough, Transformational Space Corporation, or t/Space, could signal a whole new direction for NASA, one with the potential to put the agency's manned space program back on track more quickly and affordably than its primary plan can do alone [see sidebar, page 48]. NASA grounded its space-shuttle fleet in July following Discovery's near miss with foam insulation flying off its external fuel tank. Discovery's launch this year was to be NASA's triumphant return to flight after the Columbia disaster. Instead it seemed to highlight, yet again, the shuttle's numerous design flaws and NASA's chronic inability to fix them.
It is unclear when the shuttles will launch again, but ultimately NASA plans to replace the system with a multibillion-dollar craft called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which will travel to the moon as well as to the low-Earth-orbit domain of the shuttle. But that ship won't be ready until at least 2011, and as long as NASA continues to pour money into the aging shuttles, it may have trouble scraping up the cash necessary to build it at all. What many think NASA needs is something it has never had: a no-frills, backup spaceship it could field quickly to keep U.S. astronauts flying to the International Space Station (ISS) or on other low-Earth-orbit missions if a primary system encountered trouble in development or operation.