Space News reported this afternoon that the Defense Department has signed off on a NASA proposal to develop shuttle-derived CEV and heavy-lift launch vehicles. In an August 5 letter to White House officials NASA administrator Michael Griffin and Air Force undersecretary Ronald Sega said that they had agreed that NASA will use shuttle-derived technology to develop a CEV launch vehicle by 2010, followed by a shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle. The letter was required by the space transportation policy issued at the beginning of this year, which states that NASA and the DoD would submit a joint recommendation on heavy-lift launch options to the White House.
The announcement is not very surprising: all indications over the last several weeks suggested that NASA was leaning very strongly in the direction of shuttle-derived vehicles (versus EELV-derived alternatives) and that the DoD was willing to agree to such a proposal. In a presentation at last month’s Return to the Moon conference in Las Vegas, Chris Shank, special assistant to the NASA administrator, used slides that featured illustrations of shuttle-derived CEV and heavy-lift vehicles, and later said the DoD was amenable to the concept. Griffin himself, of course, has long advocated shuttle-derived solutions.
The letter includes a couple other decisions about launch vehicle usage:
- NASA and the DoD will use EELV-class vehicles “for all intermediate and larger payloads for national security, civil, science, and International Space Station cargo re-supply missions in the 5-20 metric-ton-class to the maximum extent possible.” However, if other competing vehicles become available, they would also be eligible for such launches.
- NASA and the Air Force will perform a study on phasing out the medium-class Delta 2. The Air Force is already phasing out the Delta 2 in favor of EELVs, although NASA still uses the Delta 2 for many science missions.
- The military would consider using the shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle for any potential future applications, but has no interest in using the shuttle-derived CEV vehicle as a backup to the EELV (a concept that had been quietly batted around in recent months as a way to provide assured access while allowing the DoD to downselect to a single EELV family.)
None of these developments are terribly surprising, but the letter—assuming the White House does not object for some reason—clears away any remaining uncertainty about NASA’s future plans.