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The future of space flight

If space travel has a future, it sits on a drawing board at the University of Florida.

And it doesn't look anything like the space shuttle.

For starters, the next generation of space vehicle would likely fly more like an airplane. It would be smaller and sleeker, and each part would be reusable. And no, there probably wouldn't be any of those tiles that we've heard so much about for the past month.

Researchers at Florida's flagship university are leading a team of aerospace engineers from across the nation in developing a new type of vehicle to replace the space shuttle in two decades.

Their goal is ambitious: design a vehicle that's 10,000 times safer than the space shuttle at about 1 percent of its cost. The shuttle costs billions to operate and has killed 14 astronauts in two disasters.

"It's a tough job to get into space," said Harry Cikanek, chief of the Space Transportation Project Office at NASA, which is footing the bill for the research. "It looks a lot easier than it is. So we want to keep on track with these investments."

The research in Gainesville and other universities around the nation began long before last month's Columbia disaster, which has renewed debate over the future of the shuttle program.

NASA will give $15-million over the next five years to the Institute for Future Space Transport, a UF-led team that includes six other universities outside Florida.

Another $15-million will be given to a second group led by the University of Maryland.

More than 100 teams competed for the money. The two grants can be renewed for an additional five years.

"The whole idea is that you can't wait another 10 years," said Bhavani Sankar, a UF professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. "You have to look at the research now and develop the concepts so that you'll be ready."

The new vehicle would differ from the space shuttle in materials and design. It's expected to require less maintenance and less preparation before a launch, making it possible to fly more often. But it's still unclear what the vehicle would look like or whether it would take off from a runway or a launch pad.

"This area of research is wide open right now," said Wei Shyy, chairman of UF's department of aerospace engineering, mechanics and engineering science and institute director. "No one knows what these new space vehicles will look like or how exactly they will perform."

The most dramatic change: the vehicle would likely have an "air-breathing" engine that uses oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. It's the kind of engine used on jets, instead of the rockets used on the shuttle, which lifts off a launch pad with two large solid rocket boosters and then sails back to Earth. And it could be used alone or with a smaller rocket.

"We'd really like to build something like a shuttle craft from old Star Trek shows where you can jump in, hit the start button and fly into orbit," said Mark Lewis, a University of Maryland aerospace engineering professor who heads up the Reusable Launch Vehicle Institute, which includes four other schools.

Researchers also are looking into countless other changes that would better allow NASA to adjust to problems in real time and keep ice off the vehicle. Tiles and foam might be out. Crew escape systems might be added.

The cost of $10,000 per pound to get the shuttle into space is expected to be reduced to a mere $100 a pound.

Together, the Florida and Maryland teams have about 40 professors, 120 graduate students and hundreds of undergraduate students in aerospace engineering working on the research.

"Teaching students is our main responsibility here," said Corin Segal, a UF mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and institute executive director. "This grant ensures that our students are well supported and their work is well defined for a longer period of time."

NASA engineers and private companies such as Pratt & Whitney, which has offices West Palm Beach, also have been working to design the next space vehicle.

"NASA doesn't have the expertise to do this by themselves," said Doug Stanley of Orbital Sciences Corp., a Washington, D.C., company working with UF. "Any of these future vehicles are going to be commercially operated and owned."

The shuttle was first flown in 1981, though the fleet has been steadily improved over the years. Each shuttle, which cost about $450-million to launch, was expected to fly 100 missions. Instead, the fleet has flown 113 times total, the last being the Columbia disaster.

The three remaining orbiters _ Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis _ are undergoing costly upgrades and are expected to keep flying until about 2020, maybe longer.

"The shuttle is a remarkable machine, but its design is old," Lewis said. "The current system needs to be replaced."

NASA halted plans to develop the X-33, a plane-like aircraft once expected to replace the shuttle. In 2001, it approved work on the orbital space plane that could ferry space station crews back and forth by 2012.

The 2004 federal budget includes $1-billion for the Space Launch Initiative, splitting the money between the orbital space plane and next-generation technology being worked on at UF.

The Florida and Maryland grants were awarded months before the Feb. 1 disaster. But Columbia's demise could complicate matters by putting more pressure on researchers to build a new vehicle as fast as possible.

Since the Columbia accident, several members of Congress have called for accelerating both programs and retiring the shuttle fleet a few years earlier than planned.

"I think it reminds us how important it is we do this," Lewis said. "Columbia really brought that home."

But it's possible the Columbia investigation will delay new technology because so much money will be needed to determine why Columbia disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts.

NASA budgeted $50-million next year for the investigation. But the Challenger disaster cost NASA an estimated $15-billion, including the inquiry, safety upgrades and research delays.

"This technology is moving forward, being addressed," said Joaquin Castro, who works at Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach, "as long as the Columbia investigation doesn't take up a lot of money."

NASA officials say that's not going to happen.

"This predates what happened to Columbia," said Cikanek at NASA. "These plans that we have put in place have been in place for some time."

_ Times staff writer Wes Allison and researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

A University of Florida-led team that includes six other universities is working on a reusable space vehicle, such as the one shown in this rendering. It would have an "air-breathing" engine that uses oxygen.

An artist rendering shows a "space taxi" that would take off like a plane and be propelled by booster rockets. Orbital Sciences Corp. is working with UF on designs for a reusable vehicle.

A rendering shows a future space station and orbital space planes. The 2004 federal budget includes $1-billion for the Space Launch Initiative.

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