NASA Shuttle program manager John Shannon said on Tuesday (Mar 9) that the Space Shuttle Program can indeed be safely extended beyond the existing plan to retire the fleet after completing the four missions currently remaining to fly by the end of 2010. The key issue now is money not safety.
“Where the money comes from is the ‘big question’. We feel like we’ve addressed [the issue of shuttle] recertification”, said Shannon at a press briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
More missions could be flown if money was available. But there could be up to a two year gap in flights due to the need to restart the production lines for the huge External Tank (ET) which have already been shut down. NASA has only five ET’s remaining in inventory to fly out the current manifest of four, plus 1 more flight if approved by the Obama Administration, (read my earlier article).
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The purpose of any additional shuttle missions is quite clear. They would be directed to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) who’s working orbital lifetime has just been extended by five years to 2020 from 2015. However, the ISS cannot operate and conduct the scientific research for which it was constructed without a steady and robust stream of rocket launches to loft new human crews and cargo resupply flights.
“The real issue the agency and the nation has to address is the expense,” said Shannon.
“The shuttle program is fairly expensive. We burn at about a $200 million a month rate. So that gives you a base of about $2.4 billion a year that it would require to continue flying the shuttle, almost irregardless of how many flights you flew during the year. There’s just a base cost there you have to pay to keep the program in business”, explained Shannon.
Shannon’s comments are completely in line with those spoken by NASA KSC Shuttle manager Mike Moses about two weeks ago at the STS 130 post landing briefing. The vast expense which would supposedly be required to recertify the three orbiter shuttle fleet to fly beyond 2010 has frequently been cited by many shuttle detractors to justify a shuttle shutdown.
Shannon and Moses now state that NASA has in effect already recertified the shuttle fleet as part of the requirements set by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) for the Return to Flight in 2005 following the Columbia tragedy during re-entry in February 2003.
“From a personal standpoint, I just think it’s amazing that we’re headed down a path where we’re not going to have any vehicles at all to launch from the Kennedy Space Center for an extended period of time. To give up all the lessons learned, the blood, sweat and tears we’ve extended to get the space shuttle to the point where it is right now, where it’s performing so magnificently”, said Shannon.
President Obama’s highly controversial recent decision to completely cancel Project Constellation (comprising the Orion capsule and Ares 1 and Ares V booster rockets) leaves the US with no near term human spaceflight program to replace the shuttle before its looming retirement and no vehicle to send astronauts to the ISS and beyond to the Moon and Mars as directed by President Bush in 2004.
There are no specific destinations, goals or timelines outlined in Obama’s strategy and no direction to develop a new heavy lift booster to replace the cancelled Ares V. In its place would be some funding for technology development as outlined by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a KSC news briefing I attended. Bolden stated that NASA would not build a Heavy Lift booster “until the 2020 to 2030 time fame”.
The US would be left completely dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsule to send American astronauts into space for many years to come. Russia recently increased the price for Soyuz seats to $50 million and further increases are expected after the shuttle is retired.
Meanwhile, China is pushing full steam ahead developing a new heavy lift booster – the Long March 5 and is constructing new manned Shenzhou capsules and even the first element of a space station.
China puts its scientists and engineers to work generating innovations on exciting new space projects, while the US voluntarily dismantles its space exploration capabilities, lays off tens of thousands of people – potentially devastating local economies – and loses their accumulated knowledge.
President Obama has directed that NASA should cancel development of the manned Orion capsule and instead fund alternative private companies to develop new space taxis to deliver astronauts to low Earth orbit, or LEO. Critics have questioned the timelines of when the commercial companies can actually produce a manned capsule and whether the safety of astronauts will be compromised by companies seeking profits.
$9 Billion has already been spent on Project Constellation and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says it will cost an additional $2.5 to cancel the ongoing contracts.
At least 9000 jobs will be rapidly lost at the Kennedy Space Center due to the simultaneous shutdown of the Shuttle and Constellation human spaceflight programs. Tens of thousands more jobs will be lost across the country, especially in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and California. Layoffs have already begun.
There has been harsh bipartisan criticism of Obama’s new plan for NASA from some key members of Congress in the Senate and House who cite the new plan as nothing more than a gigantic “job killer” which will also kill Americas 50 year long leadership in Space and terminate manufacturing facilities and infrastructure as well as the accumulated know-how. Many in academia and industry also fear greatly for the future job prospects of students in science & technology, engineering and aerospace.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) has introduced a new bill to extend the life of the shuttle program until a replacement rocket system is available. Representatives Suzanne Kosmas (D) and Bill Posey (R) of Florida introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives – which was co-sponsored by other Democrats and Republicans from several states – to extend the shuttle, minimize the human spaceflight gap and accelerate development of a next generation space vehicle.
“Right now we estimate that gap would be about two years from when we’re told [to restart production] to when we’d have the first external tank rolling off the assembly line”, explained Shannon. The gap could be shortened by delaying one or more of the remaining flights.
Shannon said that in response to the Congressional bills, “We kicked off an extension study for each of the program elements to go out and physically touch base with each of the vendors and the sub vendors and the entire supply chain and understand where we might have some issues if we were to restart the program.
“There is this big misconception that there’s all this big supply chain that was shuttle specific only. Shuttle is for the most part a sideline business for these major companies that support the actual program. We will send that information to NASA Headquarters.”
“We’ve addressed the orbiter recertification issues. We are addressing the supply line issues. I don’t expect to find any problems there. The real issue we would have is just in manufacturing. While you have a supply chain, while you can get a workforce back to go and build things like external tanks, there would be some type of a gap”, he added.
Basically, an extension depends on whether the money is available. President Obama decided that he would not fund a shuttle extension and also decided to terminate Project Constellation in the new NASA budget.
The White House has just announced plans for a Florida space summit on April 15 to be held at or near the Kennedy Space Center where President Obama will discuss his new strategy for NASA. He may also announce approval for one more shuttle mission using the final ET being held in reserve in case of a space emergency rescue mission for the currently planned final mission in September 2010.
Based on the very hostile reaction and comments from Congress and local residents and politicians in Florida at a number of recent forums, President Obama should not anticipate to be greeted by a friendly crowd unless he unexpectedly announces a major policy change.
Earlier Shuttle extension and Constellation articles by Ken Kremer