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Fact sheet number: FS-2003-05-64-MSFC
Release date: 05/03

NASA is revolutionizing our space transportation systems to significantly increase safety and reliability while reducing cost through its Space Launch Initiative. The Initiative, begun in February 2001, sought to identify feasible options for future NASA space transportation and determine if the agency should proceed with full-scale development of a new reusable launch vehicle system. The Initiative has evolved to serve as a theme for two emerging programs - the Orbital Space Plane and Next Generation Launch Technology programs. The design and development of a next-generation crew rescue and crew transport vehicle - an Orbital Space Plane - is one of the objectives of the Space Launch Initiative. More than a vehicle, the Orbital Space Plane program will develop the entire space transportation system including ground operations and all supporting technologies needed to conduct missions to and from the International Space Station.

Orbital Space Plane Requirements

The Orbital Space Plane program will support Space Station requirements for crew rescue, crew transport and contingency cargo such as supplies, food and other needed equipment. The Space Plane, which may include multiple vehicles, will enable a larger permanent crew to occupy the orbiting research facility, increasing science and research capabilities in space.

NASA envisions the capabilities for crew rescue and crew transfer could result in different versions of the same vehicle design. By supporting the International Space Station, the Orbital Space Plane will initially serve as a crew rescue vehicle for the Station, enabling a crew of at least four to depart safely in the event of an emergency or an injured or ill crewmember. This early version of the plane, expected to enter service by 2010, would be launched on top of an expendable rocket, such as an Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rocket. The plane will be able to quickly separate from the Space Station under emergency conditions and return to Earth. The Orbital Space Plane will be designed to be safer than current crew transfer capabilities.

By 2012, the Orbital Space Plane will be used to ferry crew and light cargo to the Space Station. In time, the project could become the foundation for a crew transfer vehicle routinely flown to space on a new launch vehicle. The plane will be designed to have increased safety, on-orbit maneuverability, and quicker preparations and turnaround time between missions. The plane also will offer reduced cost to access space. In addition, the plane will be designed to meet all applicable Space Station requirements for visiting and attached vehicles.

Based largely on existing technologies, the Orbital Space Plane would provide safe, affordable access to the International Space Station. The Orbital Space Plane will be able to support a Space Station crew rotation of four to six months. The plane will be operable through at least 2020, although it will be designed for longer life.


Top level requirements for the Orbital Space Plane and its related systems were approved in February 2003. In March 2003, the program began evaluating system operations to ensure the alignment of systems design between the NASA mission and the contractor design. The program is scheduled to kick off its Systems Requirements Review in October 2003. The Systems Requirements Review is a NASA-led review to evaluate the concept design based on the Level 1 requirements - guidelines that lay out the foundation and top-level needs of the system. The review will also set Level 2 requirements that will further narrow the scope of the system design, including requirements for crew safety, cost, and interfacing with launch vehicles and the Space Station. The System Design Review is scheduled to begin in April 2004 and will include a further, more focused, evaluation of the concept design based on the Level 2 requirements. A decision to develop a full-scale vehicle is expected by late 2004.

Orbital Space Plane System Design

Four groups of concepts are being considered for the physical design of the space plane itself - or the vehicle architecture: a capsule, a lifting body, a sharp body with wings and a blunt body with wings. Boeing Phantom Works of Huntington Beach, Calif., Lockheed Martin Corp. of Denver; and a team including Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and Northrop Grumman of El Segundo, Calif. - are the contractor teams designing potential candidates for the vehicle and its associated systems, including ground operations and all supporting technologies needed to conduct a mission to and from the International Space Station. Initial concepts of the space plane will be delivered to NASA in October 2003 during the Systems Requirements Review.

Flight Demonstrators Lead Way to Orbital Space Plane Development

Flight demonstrators such as the X-37 vehicle will flight test advancing technologies to reduce the risk of future reusable launch vehicle systems, including the Orbital Space Plane. These demonstrators will test technologies early in the Orbital Space Plane program so advancing technologies may be added to the design of the Orbital Space Plane and its systems if needed.

The Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology, or DART, is a flight demonstrator vehicle designed to test technologies required to locate and rendezvous with other spacecraft. The DART mission is unique in that all of the operations will be autonomous - there will be no astronaut onboard at the controls, only computers programmed to perform functions. Developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., the DART vehicle will be launched on a Pegasus rocket to test rendezvous, close proximity operations and its control between the vehicle and a stationary satellite in orbit. The DART mission provides a key step in establishing autonomous rendezvous capability for the United States.

Lockheed Martin Corporation of Denver, Colo., is developing a reusable launch pad abort demonstrator, which includes a full-scale reusable system that will provide the capability to test crew escape technologies. The launch pad abort demonstrator will use fully instrumented mannequins in the crew cabin that will measure accelerations and motions resulting from the forces generated during different mission events such as testing of the crew escape propulsion systems, parachute deployment, vehicle configurations and landing techniques. The vehicle may be upgraded to test additional, maturing launch pad abort technologies to improve crew safety and survivability.

The X-37 is a flight demonstrator developed by Boeing Phantom Works of Huntington Beach, Calif. The X-37 will test and validate technologies in the environment of space, as well as test vehicle system performance during orbital flight, reentry and landing. The X-37 project includes the development of two vehicles: the X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle and the X-37 Orbital Vehicle. The atmospheric tests are scheduled for mid-2004 and the orbital flight is scheduled for mid-2006. An initial list of experiments and technologies to be tested includes advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; high temperature structures; conformal reusable insulation; and high-temperature seals.

For more information on the Orbital Space Plane program, visit its web site at: