The test flight of a potentially revolutionary transportation system for future space missions has been delayed several months for more preflight testing, project officials announced Tuesday. Originally planned for the second half of December, the flight of the Demonstrator-3 inflatable space vehicle will now occur sometime in the spring of 2005.
If the technology proves out, it could fill a crucial gap in future space transportation by allowing objects to be more easily returned from space, surviving the fiery fall through Earth’s atmosphere. Small packets could carry scientific results from the international space station. And when the space shuttle is retired, sometime after 2010, bigger versions could still provide a safe return for large space modules, rocket boosters and other containers.
Russian space engineers funded by the European Space Agency had been quietly preparing a new test of the vehicle. In large part because previous test flights have ended ignominiously, preparations for the latest test were proceeding without any official advance notice, although program officials have privately briefed MSNBC.com on its progress.
Sometimes referred to as a “ballute,” or “balloon parachute,” the technology has for decades been recognized as a potential breakthrough, but sufficiently strong materials had never been available. Also, many top space program managers long felt that the idea of using a balloon instead of a heavy ceramic or metal shell as a heat shield was utter nonsense.
“Technically, inflatables are feasible,” said retired NASA futurist Joe Loftus, who once headed the advanced planning office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “The question is: What is it that will make them desirable?”