Space Shuttle to Remain Forever 29; Successor Program Going Great…or Not

NASA has released the schedule for its remaining ten space shuttle missions. The plan includes nine flights to the International Space Station and a Hubble servicing mission in October. Endeavour is set to close out the shuttle era beginning on May 31, 2010 – about 10 months short of the 30th anniversary of the program’s inaugural mission on April 12, 1981.

Meanwhile, NASA has ramped work on the shuttle’s successor, Constellation. In lieu of actual test flights (which won’t begin until next year), the space agency has created a really snazzy video showing how Constellation will place us on a path back to the moon beginning in 2013….or 2015.

And how is work going on the Ares rockets and Orion capsule? Officially, everything’s coming up Milhouse. In fact, you can read about how well things are going on NASA’s official Constellation website. Or read this story about Ares in the Houston Chronicle.

Others aren’t so sure.

The anonymous author of the insider Rocketsandsuch blog – who regularly refers to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin as “The Emperor” – says that the shuttle-derived Ares 1 vehicle is so troubled that NASA will likely cancel it. The author also doesn’t think too highly of the larger Ares 5 booster, which probably should be called Ares 6 because of the additional engine it now requires.

Some people wouldn’t be sad to see the Ares program canceled. A group of engineers have been promoting their own shuttle-derived launcher called DIRECT, a.k.a. Jupiter. They think it would be a much more efficient way of send humans back to the moon.

NASA begs to differ. Last week, the space agency released the results of a study conducted by the Marshall Space Flight Center that indicates DIRECT would be much, much worse than the Ares rockets. Insufficient payload, higher costs, cryogenic refueling on orbit, the list goes on. Wired Science has a summary. Or you can read NASA’s White Paper or longer Technical Assessment.

NASA’s analysis has prompted a response from DIRECT team member Chuck Longton. Rob Coppinger has Longton’s objections to NASA’s critique over on the Hyperbola blog.

FWIW, Mr. Rocketsandsuch also doesn’t think it’s a very good idea, either. “And yet, like every other half-baked idea, the Jupiter concept is yet another answer to the wrong question,” the anonymous blogger opined.

So, you’re probably wondering: Where does this leave us? I really have no idea. My guess is that NASA will continue on along its current path for most of the next year. Then whoever is president will have to determine where the program is and what to do about it. All I can say is: Good luck. He’s probably going to need it.