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Orbital Space Plane Fact Sheet by Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital Space Plane Overview by Space Launch Initiative News

OSP InfoNet by OSP Program Office

Link to NASA KIDS versionOrbital Space Plane--Commuting To Space
June 17, 2003

Four concepts for the Orbital Space Plane.
Four concepts for the Orbital Space Plane.
For the better part of three decades, the Space Shuttle has been NASA's only vehicle for carrying people to and from Earth's orbit. The Shuttle has several advantages over the small capsules that preceded it. Its larger crew cabin allows it to carry more passengers. Its large payload bay makes it ideal for carrying cargo to and from orbit, for performing construction projects like the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS), and for serving as a facility for microgravity science experiments. This capacity makes the Shuttle the perfect vehicle for any number of jobs. It's the spacecraft equivalent of a bus, a moving van, a construction truck, a science lab, and even a race car, with its high-performance propulsion systems, all rolled into one. But, sometimes when you're just going for a drive or taking a trip, you don't really need a bus, a moving van, a construction truck, a science lab, or a race car. Sometimes, a simple compact car would make traveling a lot more convenient and less expensive. The same principle applies to spaceflight. That's why NASA is developing the Orbital Space Plane (OSP).

Rather than being a replacement for the Space Shuttle, the OSP would be another asset in NASA's fleet. The OSP is part of the space agency's Integrated Space Transportation Plan. This plan calls for different types of spacecraft, like the Space Shuttle, the ISS, and the OSP, each serving a different purpose to complement each other. They would work together to provide better solutions for manned spaceflight.

An automated spacecraft prepares for docking.
An automated spacecraft prepares for docking.
The OSP is designed to meet a pressing need for a "lifeboat" for the ISS. If the Station's crew needed to leave in case of an emergency or a medical problem, a spacecraft is needed to provide them a way home. However, NASA decided that rather than making a one-way craft that could only come down from the Station, it would make more sense to develop a multifunctional spacecraft that could ferry crews to and from orbit. Thus, the OSP initiative was born. However, an OSP is not a new idea. As far back as the 1950s, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wrote about launching a reusable vehicle "like an airplane" on top of a rocket. Since the basic concepts involved in the OSP have been around for decades, development of the OSP should be less complicated than some of the more ambitious designs NASA is working on.

So, what exactly is an Orbital Space Plane? No one is really entirely sure at this point. In fact, it may not look anything like a plane at all. One concept for the OSP would more closely resemble a capsule used in the early days of the space program than it would an airplane. Some of the other designs would have wings, while others would not. Right now, NASA's engineers are more concerned with determining what the OSP will do, than with what it will look like.

An artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft.
An artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft.
Initial requirements for the Orbital Space Plane were recently approved by the Agency and distributed to industry. The OSP will be able to carry at least four astronauts onboard. In addition to crew capability, it will have the ability to carry limited cargo if necessary to transport science experiments to and from the Space Station. Astronauts will not have to wear space suits to fly on the OSP, but it will be roomy enough to accommodate the crew wearing suits. It will allow for ill or injured crew members to be returned safely to Earth and receive definitive medical care within 24 hours of departure from the ISS. In case of an emergency on the Station, the crew will be able to depart rapidly on the Space Plane. The OSP will be designed to be safer than current manned spacecraft. It will be able to be readied for launch more quickly than the Space Shuttle, and will have greater maneuverability than the Shuttle in orbit.

Current plans call for a phased implementation of the Orbital Space Plane. The first phase would be the use of the OSP as an ISS crew return vehicle. The plan is for the OSP to be available for this function no later than 2010, and possibly earlier. By at least 2012, the OSP would be able to carry the crew both to and from the ISS, launching on a nonreusable rocket. In the future, the Space Plane could even be launched on a reusable booster that has not been designed yet.

A rocket carries the OSP into orbit.
A rocket carries the OSP into orbit.
Once it's completed, the Orbital Space Plane will become NASA's first new manned launch vehicle in 30 years. When that happens, flying into space--still a very risky endeavor--will become safer and less costly.

Source: NASAexplores

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November 27, 2001