John Glenn: Keep the Space Shuttles Flying


US spaceflight legend John Glenn has weighed in on the current human spaceflight debate, releasing an 8-page paper outlining his feelings and a potential plan to allow US astronauts to keep launching on US vehicles. While Glenn supports President Barack Obama’s plan to extend operations of the International Space Station and to forego returning to the Moon for the time being, he thinks retiring the space shuttles at this point is a mistake.

“The world’s only heavy lift spacecraft and the U.S.’s only access to space should stay in operation until suitably replaced by a new and well tested heavy lift vehicle,” Glenn wrote. “The Shuttle system is working extremely well, has had systems upgrades through the years, and has had “the bugs” worked out of it through many years of use. The Shuttle is probably the most complex vehicle ever assembled and flies in the harshest of environments. Why terminate a perfectly good system that has been made more safe and reliable through many years of development?”

But Glenn said the US also needs to develop heavy lift capability, and do it sooner rather than later. And while he supports the plan for NASA to contract with commercial companies to ferry astronauts and some cargo to and from the ISS, he also said NASA can’t rely solely on commercial space vehicles, which at present are unproven in their reliability.

Keeping the space shuttle program going would cost about $1 Billion a year. “That is a very small price to pay for maximizing the benefits from a $100 Billion national investment, and may even be cheaper than the final bill from the Russians,” Glenn said.

He blames NASA’s current predicament on Congress for not adequately funding the Constellation program.

He erred, however, in his statement that the “U.S. for the first time since the beginning of the Space Age will have no way to launch anyone into space – starting next January.” NASA did not launch humans into space from July 1975 to April 1981 – the end of Apollo and Skylab until the beginning of the shuttle era, as well as when spacecraft were grounded following the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, the Challenger accident in 1986 and the Columbia accident in 2003.

Glenn is the latest former astronaut to join the debate on NASA’s future and while some ex-astronauts are staunchly against cutting the Constellation program to return to the Moon, and others wholly endorse the plan, Glenn seemingly takes a middle ground.

Here are his suggested objectives:

Short Term
Extend the Shuttle. It is key to ISS ready access. Phase-in new space access providers only as they become experienced and have proven reliability.

Maximize research on the ISS – plan with the science community.

Use the ISS for long term Mars mission training.

Develop a fully tested replacement heavy-lift capability.

Long Term

Robotic exploration of Mars and other destinations such as asteroids.

Continue ISS research as long as it is making substantial contributions.

Increase preparation and planning for a Mars mission.

Determine – earth-to-Mars, or assembled-in-earth-orbit – to Mars.

Set a firm schedule –Go for Mars.

You can read Glenn’s full statement here.

This is not the first time Glenn has proposed to keep the shuttles flying. In 2008, he said “The shuttles may be old, but they’re still the most complex vehicles ever put together by people, and they’re still working very well,” he said after a Capitol Hill ceremony marking NASA’s 50th anniversary.

19 Replies to “John Glenn: Keep the Space Shuttles Flying”

  1. I’m with Glenn on this business regarding the Space Shuttles; the Russians have been using the old Soyuz ‘workhorse’ since November 1966 because it bloody works!

  2. Sounds like John Glenn wants to go back up? maybe for a little old visit to the ISS and view thru the Cupola? Who wouldn’t???

    It is to be expected that in this website/blog there will be more supporters in favor of keeping the shuttle(s) flying… me one of them. But there are also plenty of reasons to stand down…

    1) Cost: A drop in the bucket compared to what the US has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan…. but still a big ol ‘hole in the water’.
    2) Aging technology: The ‘glass cockpit’ upgrade to the existing shuttle fleet is now old tech. as are many of the subsystems.
    3) Aging components: This category includes metal and materials fatigue, some of which is known and some unknown – especially material(s) exposure to launch acoustic vibrations and torque, high energy particle bombardment, E/M radiation exposure and temperature extremes.
    4) Two failed missions with life lost – demonstrates the fragility of the system AND how ‘lucky’ we have been using it…

    IMHO – we should be flying 2nd or 3rd gen. shuttles by now! Question is, how can we make a buck (The penultimate driving force today?) to keep interests levels up?

  3. The end of the shuttle program might be nearly irreversible now. The production facilities are being closed up.


  4. Well, if the Shuttles are being to be retired, perhaps the Russians might be interested in buying one, or more shuttles. Silly idea I know.

  5. I agree with nearly everything Senator Glenn has to say except the heavy push towards a manned mission to Mars.
    I believe we first need to perfect man living on the Moon for an extended period of time before we risk sending men to Mars for an extended period of time. Because of Mars and Earth’s orbit, you can’t just leave Mars whenever you want to return to Earth. Once man proves it can survive on the Moon for 6 months or more, then we’ll be ready for Mars.

    The actual cost for continuing the shuttle fleet isn’t a great deal. You also have to remember it costs money to break everything down. Not to mention the fact we will have to pay Russia $50 Million per seat (up from $20M)on their vehicles. I wouldn’t be shocked if they increased it more in the near future.

    The technology with the shuttle is fine for what we need it to do. Realistically, any CPU controlled component is typcially outdated after one year. This doesn’t mean you rip everything out and spend money to upgrade, when the components you have are just fine.

    As far as metal fatigue… as long as the vehicles are fully inspected after each flight (and they are) to check for any problems with seems, fasteners, structure change, etc… this isn’t an issue. The USAF has many planes they still use which were built in the 60’s… and they still have the original skeletons, and you know aircraft have to deal with extreme environments as well; all in all for a much longer time, for many more missions. Any “aging” components can be changed.
    All in all, I would rather fly in an older ‘proven’ vehicle than a new rarely tested vehicle. Look at how many crashes Airbus planes have had due to mechanical failure compared to Boeing’s 747, 707, 727 etc… which are still flying today without incidents caused by mechanical failure.

    As far as failed missions… this is a part of the program. It is something each astronaut is aware of and accepts.
    Any new program is just as vulnerable to accidents as the next. There are a lot of moving parts which have to work in extreme environments. One small mistake in any of them could go without being noticed and cause problems.
    It is very likely we will lose astronauts in the future, no matter what program is used.

  6. Good on Nancy Atkinson for uncovering some of the technical untruths in Mr Glenn’s document. One could also cite his statement “Keeping the Space Shuttle program going would cost about $1 Billion a year” as blatantly false. When Space Shuttle flights average over $1 billion each time (measured as total programme cost / total number of flights) and the programme has already started going off-line (the external fuel tank assembly line is closed, the SRB contractors have let staff go, only one of the two Space Shuttle launch pads remains Shuttle compatible etc.), such statements are a cruel hoax to play on genuine Space Shuttle fans. Then there’s the issue of major assembly on the ISS being completed already, so there is little need for the Heavy Lift capacity of the Space Shuttle.

    The issue of what these statements are really about depends how many Chess moves ahead Mr Glenn is thinking. We can take clues from Mr Glenn juxtaposing a false description of the Space Shuttle as “The world’s only heavy lift spacecraft” and volunteering a view that commercial space vehicles are “unproven in their reliability”. These sentiments echo the content of Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Florida) recently proposed space bill to bring forward the Heavy Lifter program and apply the brakes to the “private-sector space-taxi services” with what he describes as a “walk before you run” approach.

    Disingenuous attempts to revive the Space Shuttle programme will eventually be abandoned, but only after generating fear and resentment about a perceived Heavy Lifter gap and paving the way to expedite Heavy Lifter development. Sen. Nelson’s bill adds new missions to Lagrange points and for Lunar orbits as pre-cursors to the manned Mars mission to get the “need it now” ball rolling on Heavy Lifters. In political mathematics, Heavy Lifters mean jobs for participating states and votes for members of Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space and their associates. Mr Glenn also advocates “Developing a fully tested replacement heavy-lift capability” as short term gaol.

    This won’t suit the Administration, which has yet to fix a date for the manned Mars mission, or select the profile for the manned Asteroid mission and makes no mention of Lagrange point missions or Lunar Orbit missions all of which would require Heavy Lifters. The Administration will instead see Sen. Nelson’s bill as premature and a potential threat to a possible extension of the commercialization vision to include Heavy Lifters in a type of COTS part II programme. We know that SpaceX have a Falcon-9 Heavy Lifter on the drawing board and this looks more and more credible with every test that regular Falcon-9s pass, so the clock is ticking against opponents who want NASA to have Boeing/Lockheed-Martin/In-house Heavy Lifters instead. Expect the upcoming debate to get nasty.

    Whatever happens, it’s difficult to buy these latest stated attempts to revive the Space Shuttle programme as genuine. The major players have much bigger fish on their mind and they are positioning themselves for what will be happening in the next five to ten years. Sorry or not, the Space Shuttle is toast.

  7. Good on Nancy Atkinson for uncovering some of the technical untruths in Mr Glenn’s document. […] the programme has already started going off-line

    Speaking on technical untruths of Glenn, he also claimed on ” The Obama administration” that “Terminating the Shuttle in 2010 was agreed to.”

    That doesn’t seem to square with the truth. This article notes that the last external fuel tank (ET) was moved into final assembly in April 2010. The article notes that an ET has a completion time of ~ 24 months. This squares with the time from the Bush administration decision to terminate the STS.

    It is unlikely the Obama administration was ever in a position to terminate the program, considering that Obama assumed office late January 2009.

    Further, even if somehow the disassembled (see the photo) and likely sold production line was by a miracle resurrected in a new locale (since the facility was looking for other production), it would make a minimum 2 years gap before the first ET enabled a new STS launch. Likely longer, since new production locales must be built or at least found.

    Considering that Space-X can be delivering material at that time, and be one year away from providing full ISS service, why would anyone want to risk a larger sum of capital for a really minute, likely non-existent, chance to provide the service for a much greater cost at, realistically, roughly the same time?

  8. Glenn juxtaposing a false description of the Space Shuttle as “The world’s only heavy lift spacecraft”

    Yes, why doesn’t he know his rockets? :_D

    And of the remaining working 3 systems after STS goes off line, US owns 1 of its own. No need to buy the service from EU or Russia even.

    demonstrates the fragility of the system AND how ‘lucky’ we have been using it…

    No, AFAIU the STS has been the most reliable US system ever (lowest risk/person launched). IIRC some article describing the statistics, it’s fairly even with or better than the Soyuz.

    There was never any reason, beyond the huge cost and huge PR loss associated with having an accident of a large craft, to terminate STS. Any one of those were however enough to do the trick.

  9. As far as failed missions… this is a part of the program

    @Aodhhan. No offence intended, but I really must beg to differ. An average attrition rate of 1 fatality per 10 flights (~140 flights / 14 astronauts killed in the line of duty) is unacceptably high by any measure, and out of respect to …

    Michael Smith,
    Dick Scobee,
    Ronald McNair,
    Ellison Onizuka,
    Christa McAuliffe,
    Gregory Jarvis,
    Judith Resnik,
    Rick Husband,
    William McCool,
    Michael Anderson,
    David Brown,
    Kalpana Chawla,
    Laurel Blair Salton,
    Ilan Ramon

    and their families, one fatality is too much to bear.

  10. What other ‘waiting in the wings’ projects, besides the AMS, are wanting a shuttle launch? WHERE are the high power zero G plasma magnetic experiments? The Russians found crystalline shapes in plasma geometry’s…

  11. When Glenn puts Shuttle system as “bugs worked out through many years, or “system that has been made more safe and reliable,” we are setting us up for next accident you know. I see Titanic coming. People become complacent, especially management whose primary skill is on politics. Shuttle is still experimental system in progress. Hundreds of engineer is still needed to maintain the craft every time it lands! It is very costly system. NASA was too eager to hang on to Shuttle. And, Congress as usual has no clue about long term planning.

  12. TerryG…
    I agree with you… any loss is tragic, if this is what you truly believe, then any ratio is unacceptable. Even if it is 1:10000. I mourned with the rest of the world after these accidents. I meant no disrespect to those families. My point is, any program where a person straps themself onto a rocket is a risky adventure. Each person who does this understands the risk and accepts this fact. If the accidents were truly unacceptable the program would have remained grounded after the investigations of each incident.

    No matter what program is accepted and launched in the near future, it will have risks, and it is very likely there will be loss of life in the future. There are many things which can go wrong, and it only takes one to cause a fatality.

    If there is a belief with the Obama Administration thinking the shuttle fleet is too old and unsafe to use, I think we should ask the current astronauts who are educated enough to make a decision on this subject, and whose lives are at stake. Defer to their decision and listen to what they have to say.

  13. Emilio…
    Those facts would be indicitive of any vehicle; new or old. Individuals can become complacent with new designs.
    There are relative costs with any system. One of the great things with the shuttle is the fact many items can be reused. This justifies many of its costs.Building new launch structures, tanks, supports, rocket engines, etc for each lauch is a lot more expensive than the workers it takes to capture the shuttle. By the way, this isn’t the only job those workers have… they are used during all phases, not just recovering the shuttle after landing.

  14. John Glen referred to the private rockets as unproven.
    But what other rocket system capable of launching a man do we have? Ares has never flown. The private companies will prove themselves, their livelihood depends on it.

  15. As usual, the blithering fool Aodhhan hasn’t any clue in what he says or thinks.
    I just wouldn’t listen to him.

  16. Dumb Crumb…
    I guess it is time to start picking apart your idiotic statements you make which is easy because you don’t totally understand anything you cut and paste.

    The only time you do make any sense, is when you use the words of others and don’t add your own.

    Anyone who can read, can tell the difference in writing and thinking every time you add your uneducated logic to others work.

Comments are closed.