USA Proposes Keeping Shuttle Alive Until 2017

Space shuttle Atlantis lands on runway 33 at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility concluding the STS-129 mission. Photo credit: NASA Jack Pfaller

Some interesting news from Rob Coppinger:

NASA is considering a plan to keep the space shuttle Endeavour in flight-like condition after its last scheduled mission, a move that could lead to its transformation into a privatized spaceship rather than a museum piece.

Endeavour’s continued operation through 2017 is part of a proposal that could receive millions of dollars in development funds from the space agency next month.

The proposal — called Commercial Space Transportation Service, or CSTS — would use Endeavour as well as a sister shuttle, Atlantis, to fly two missions a year from 2013 to 2017 at an annual cost of $1.5 billion. United Space Alliance, the contractor that currently manages the shuttle program on NASA’s behalf, has offered the proposal for the second round of funding from the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development initiative, also known as CCDev 2…

While the CCDev 2 decision is pending, NASA has decided to study the option of keeping Endeavour in a flight-like condition at one of Kennedy Space Center’s three Orbiter Processing Facilities, according to documents obtained by msnbc.com. This study is to examine what personnel and funding would be needed to retain Endeavour instead of giving it up.

In essence, there are two separate initiatives underway: the proposal by USA and a separate study being undertaken by the space agency. NASA spokesman Michael Curie explained the latter is more about potential delays in sending the shuttles to museums:

“Our baseline plan continues to be to process the shuttle orbiters for retirement and prepare them for display after their last flights,” he said Thursday in his e-mail. “As a what-if budget exercise, we are looking at what it would cost if a recipient was not ready to take an orbiter right away, and if we wanted to keep an orbiter in long-term storage for potential engineering analysis.”

We’ll see what happens. The shuttle is a wonderful technological achievement and a versatile workforce, and the pending gap in spaceflights is unpalatable. However, the systems is expensive to maintain and operate. We need to move to something less expensive and complicated, and I’m not sure there’s money in the budget to do both simultaneously.  Spending $9 billion over the next six years would drain a lot of money from a new generation of vehicles.

There are also issues of components: it could take two years to produce new external tanks. Would it be worth flying at that point when you could put the funds and resources toward fielding new spacecraft.

Read the full story.