After the Shuttle, Should Astronauts be Launched on Satellite Rockets?

Article written: 9 May , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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When the Shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, what other mode of transport could be used to take NASA astronauts into space? After all, we routinely launch satellites into orbit, why can’t the same technology be adapted and used for human spaceflight? Well, the US Senate committee on space and aeronautics was told by a retired US Air Force general on Wednesday that this option should be considered. Rather than injecting billions to accelerate development of the Orion space vehicle or becoming dependent on the Russian Soyuz, the reliable workhorses of satellite launches, the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, could be “human rated”…

Concern is growing for the gap in the US ability to get astronauts into space between 2010 (when the Shuttle fleet is retired) and 2015 (the scheduled completion of Orion spacecraft and Ares rocket). As voiced on Tuesday by record breaking astronaut John Glenn, to depend on the Russian Soyuz system could prove problematic. This concern has been echoed by former US Air Force general Robert S. Dickman and has outlined a possible solution to the five-year gap. For a modest $500 million to $1 billion, the Atlas V and Delta IV launch systems (more accustomed to blasting communication satellites and military payloads into orbit) could be adapted to carry astronauts into space, and supplying the International Space Station. The only other way to reduce the gap would be to accelerate the Constellation Program, or (as voiced by Glenn on Tuesday) extend the Shuttle program. Unfortunately, both of these options would be disproportionately expensive.

So, converting satellite rockets might be a nice compromise; reduce the dependence on other space agencies, keep costs low and keep space open to manned space flight for NASA. Sounds like the perfect solution…

However, a top NASA official who worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs had a sobering reply for this possibility. Eugene Kranz told the US Senate committee that human rating existing rockets is no easy task. Kranz was involved in converting Titan and early Atlas rockets so they could be used for the manned Mercury an Apollo missions. Unfortunately, although this option looks attractive on paper, in reality, much more investment is required – often larger, unforeseen modifications are needed.

In the case of the Titan and Atlas modifications, the human rating took several years to complete. Unfortunately, 2010 is only two years away, modifying existing rockets sufficiently simply will not be completed on time.

Where NASA may not convert the rockets, private space corporations might. The company SpaceDev is looking into converting the Atlas V rocket, incorporating its Dreamchaser capsule as part of the plan to offer commercial ferrying of NASA astronauts to the ISS. Bigalow Aerospace and Lockheed Martin are hot on their tails, proposing human rating the Atlas V for trips to future Bigalow space hotels.

Source: New Scientist Blog


8 Responses

  1. Ross says

    Welp, Another sardine can job coming. Just what are we suppose to do in a tuna can that you can hardly move around in other then to jockey for your seat? I bet this is what N.A.S.A. plans to blast our astroauts into space with when the orion capsule is ready to use. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Russia will probably have their shuttle ready to use.

    I think N.A.S.A. is scard stiff of the shuttle because they had a couple of them crashing one them. They should up grade the shuttle technology, not decommission it. If bigalow aero-space hotels are successful, how we going to get people up there. Hopefully Virgin Galactic will be up and flying. More then just sub-orbital.

  2. Frank Glover says

    Can this be any different from launching them on ‘man-rated’ ballistic missiles as we used to do? The only manned launchers that didn’t start that way were the Saturns and the Shuttle.

    At least commercial customers (with tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on the line) want their payloads to reliably reach orbit as much as any thing with people, and those launchers are built to deliver as best as they can. The only real difference today, is that unmanned launchers don’t have any provisions for detecting situations that would trigger an emergency abort, because there are no escape systems to make use of them…

  3. Fred says

    Russia will have a shuttle?
    Russia had a shuttle. They turned away from that setup (for now at least) because there was no getting around the launch and turnaround costs of such a spacecraft.

    What we want is a single stage to orbit or space plane. A return to hashing out venture star or oriental express solutions… which could take decades and cost billions without conducting any useful human spaceflight.
    Focusing on that alone means no valuable flight experience is gained in the mean time and a stop to many other important areas of space development.

    Nasa is simply looking at what works with what we can build today. This leads to small and lightweight capsules.
    The ideal would be a dual approach that embraces advanced space craft development while not giving up our current foothold on the ISS and a long overdue return to lunar missions.

    Unfortunately, with the current pick of US politicians, thats not likely to happen.

  4. PHWilson says

    Hmmm, more and more often Bigalow industries appears in articles. Did anyone say Hadden Industries? Wanna take a ride?

  5. John Glenn rode into space on an Altas 46 years ago. Talking about treading water…

  6. John Mendenhall says

    Maybe that’s why John Glenn wants to keep the shuttle going.

  7. Frank Glover says

    Some people want to take the presumably man-rated Ares-1 and make a ‘satellite launcher’ variant. But a lot of other people are not impressed…

    http://www.transterrestrial.com/archives/2008/04/what_fresh_hell.html

  8. Frank McDougald says

    What is the problem here? We have a known and reliable Shuttle system. We just keep using that until the Orion system is ready. Projecting the readyness of a new set-up is a guess. You keep using the old stuff until the next new thing is ready. So, now we just give it all up because it’s too expensive?And, then, when someone else reaps the benefits of all that’s been done, I guess we hold an inquiry to find out why it”s not us!

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