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Florida To Lead Move To Make Space Travel 'Routine'

NASA has chosen the University of Florida as the lead institution in a nearly $16 million research initiative aimed at making space flight as routine, inexpensive and safe as commercial air travel.

The space agency has announced that UF will lead a seven-member consortium of universities that make up its newly created Institute for Future Space Transport. The institute's overall goal is an ambitious one: to design spacecraft and systems that will reduce launch costs by a factor of 100 and increase safety by a factor of 10,000.

"We will not be able to continue to rely on the space shuttle for frequent low orbital missions -- the costs are just too prohibitive," said Wei Shyy, director of the new institute and chairman of the UF's department of aerospace engineering, mechanics and engineering science. "Instead, we'll have to develop the technology that will eventually fly spacecraft more like aircraft, in terms of cost, safety and maintenance, and that's the focus of this institute."

The institute is one of seven University Research, Engineering and Technology Institutes NASA announced earlier this week following a highly competitive selection process that drew applications from more than 100 teams nationwide.

The overall goal of the institutes is to "perform research and development that not only increases fundamental understanding of phenomena but also moves fundamental advances from scientific discovery to basic technology," according to NASA.

The UF-led Institute for Future Space Transport will focus on four research areas: new propulsion technologies; lighter, stronger and more reliable spacecraft; improved systems to monitor the health and well-being of the spacecraft's technological and life-support systems; and better ways to integrate all of the spacecrafts' diverse systems.

"This area of research is wide open right now," Shyy said. "No one knows what these new space vehicles will look like or how exactly they will perform."

The institute will involve more than a dozen UF faculty members in the college of engineering as well as numerous graduate students. Participants include aerospace engineering Professor Corin Segal, who also will serve as executive director of the institute.

Segal's research will concentrate on the development of new air-breathing propulsion systems. Currently, he said, shuttle launches cost around $500 million per mission. Air-breathing propulsion-based vehicles would operate from runways like airplanes, with the potential to reduce the turnaround time between launches. They also would significantly reduce the vehicle weight and the overall operational costs.

"Our goal is to achieve the capability of reaching low orbit with air-breathing propulsion," he said. "It's cheaper and the turnaround between flights is much shorter."

The other member universities in the institute are Mississippi State University, Cornell University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

It is expected that NASA will disburse the $16 million in installments of roughly $3 million annually for five years. Although the grant is extendable for an additional five years, the institute's industry partners likely will pick up an increasing share of the support as the research matures. Those partners include Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin, Aerospace Corporation and Orbital Sciences.

"We're very pleased NASA has identified the University of Florida as one of its centers of excellence," said Win Phillips, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school. "This is a great accolade to our faculty who have been performing excellent research for NASA and for the country for years. We're very proud of them."

A team of UF faculty members led by Jose Fortes, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, have been selected as members in another NASA institute led by Purdue University. The institute's mission is to conduct research on nanoelectronics and computing technologies. UF will receive about $1.5 million for its participation in this research.

"The College of Engineering has done very well in this NASA competition," said Pramod Khargonekar, UF engineering college dean. "It is gratifying that the excellence of our faculty and students is being recognized at the highest levels nationally." - By Aaron Hoover

[Contact: Wei Shyy, Aaron Hoover]






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