Washington Beset by financial and technical problems putting people in space, NASA on Thursday shot down its proposed space plane after spending nearly $1 billion on it.
The announcement effectively killing the X-33 space plane, which was supposed to replace the aging space shuttle fleet, came a day after the space agency announced it would dramatically prune its plans to expand the International Space Station because the program is $4 billion over budget.
That came on the heels of the demotion of George Abbey, a high-ranking official who had been the godfather of the human space program and longtime director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He was reassigned to NASA's Washington headquarters as senior assistant last week.
"It's 52-card pickup time," space analyst John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington policy group, said of the NASA human spaceflight program. "It's in greater disarray than it's been in some decades."
The X-33 program, over-budget and behind schedule, needed money from NASA to stay alive. On Thursday, NASA announced it would spend no more on the plane, which was being built by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md. NASA also canceled an experimental unmanned-rocket program called X-34.
Without NASA money, "I can't see us pressing forward alone," Lockheed Martin spokesman Evan McCollum said Thursday.
"This has been a very tough decision, but we think it is the right business decision," said Art Stephenson, the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which oversaw the program.
He said NASA learned from the space plane and the X-34 "that our technology has not yet advanced to the point that we can successfully develop a new reusable-launch vehicle that substantially improves safety, reliability and affordability."
That leaves NASA's fleet of space shuttles, the oldest of which turns 20 next month, flying people to and from orbit for the foreseeable future, said John Logsdon, director of the space policy institute at George Washington University here. But that's not a problem, he said: "There are a lot of airplanes that fly a lot more years than 20."
"The shuttle is a perfectly capable vehicle for carrying people to and from the (space) station," Logsdon said.
But a NASA advisory safety panel said last month that if the shuttle is not replaced soon, the space agency should make major improvements to the fleet.