Forever Endeavour: USA has Plan to Continue Flying Space Shuttles


She is the youngest orbiter in NASA’s fleet – and she is being looked at to keep her country in space during a period when the U.S. will lack the capability to do so. Both Endeavour and her sister Atlantis are part of a proposal to keep the shuttles flying into 2017. United Space Alliance (USA) submitted the proposal in the latter part of 2010 as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Round 2 ( CCDev2).

NASA asked aerospace firms for concepts and ideas to advance the cause of commercial crew transportation. NASA has offered to provide funding to companies to look into various manned space flight systems. USA submitted the Commercial Space Transportation System (CSTS) – an adapted version of the shuttle’s Space Transportation System title.

USA wanted to make sure that all options for crew transportation to orbit were on the table. That included keeping the orbiters Atlantis and Endeavour in service until 2017. If this plan succeeds, the shuttles could conduct missions as quickly as by the year 2013. They would have to wait for new external tanks to be produced. Two flights annually would cost approximately $1.5 billion.

Although some are calling the proposal a “long shot” the plan has some very tangible merits. It would limit the “gap” between the end of the end of the shuttle era and when commercial space-taxis could begin ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Keeping the shuttles in service would also help to significantly decrease dependence on the Russian Soyuz for access to the orbiting outpost.

“The CSTS could provide a near-term U.S. solution for crew transport until a new system is ready. It could provide a low-risk approach to bridging the gap in human spaceflight since the program has been flying since 1981 and is well understood,” USA spokesperson Tracy Yates told Universe Today. “It could also provide redundancy for human access to the ISS and therefore ensure the continued viability of an important national asset. The concept has the potential to offer a proven vehicle operated by a seasoned workforce at a market-driven price. It preserves down-mass capability, stabilizes a larger portion of the human spaceflight workforce for future NASA programs and keeps more crew transport dollars at home.”

For the Space Coast this proposal would also have the added benefit of staving off the crippling unemployment that has come as part of the one-two punch of the end of the shuttle era and the cancellation of the Constellation Program.

Although the CSTS has a specific date (2017) mentioned – it is capable of remaining in effect until the new commercial systems come online. This proposal would allow NASA to utilize a proven space vehicle and the overall idea of a “commercial shuttle program” is actually nothing new – the idea has been bandied about since the 90s.

However, while the cost is less than the $3 billion the shuttle program cost in 2010, it is basically the same amount that NASA is paying Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) for 12 missions to the space station. The NewSpace firm has stated that four manned flights would cost approximately $550 million.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has stated that a flight on the manned version of the Dragon spacecraft would cost about $140 million. Image Credit: SpaceX

“The main thing that this program has going against it is this, what does the shuttle offer that the HTV, ATV, Soyuz and soon commercial craft can’t offer,” said noted space historian David M. Harland. “In today’s economic climate it makes more sense to pay $50 million or so for a seat on Soyuz.”

23 Replies to “Forever Endeavour: USA has Plan to Continue Flying Space Shuttles”

  1. Wait a minute.

    I thought the assembly systems fro the external tanks had already been scrapped? Wouldn’t these need to also be rebuilt?! This if this is true, this is an additional cost to an already old, dangerous and expensive launch vehicle!

    Just suck it up and rely on the Russians until commercial transportation is ready.

    These senators and lobbyists must enjoy running the US into the ground.

    1. ET Tooling has not been scrapped it’s in mothballed state. However most of the employees at ATK and LM who built the ETs and SRBs have been terminated. The suppliers that built the components have been turned off long ago and some even have gone out of business. So that means no materials to build the External Tanks; it’d take years to turn full scale production back on. There’s enough Tanks and materials for 4 maybe 5 more launches including the 2 currently scheduled for the end of this month and April.

  2. I find it rather amusing that the US has nothing to fly so we buy seats on the Soyuz, and the Russians have no where to launch from, so they rent Baikonur (I know they built it in the first place but seriously…). What happened to the space superpowers?

  3. Ohhh boy, reality is starting to settle in that they would be sitting ducks by relying on the Russians. I love the Russians but other countries like China is going warp speed at space development. You cannot afford to lose the experienced people.

    1. One manned flight to LEO, every 2-3 years isn’t exactly my idea of ‘warp speed…’

      Still, things will get a bit more interesting if they follow through on their space station plans, even if it’s (initially) no bigger than the Salyut series.

  4. I like the idea of having an interim heavy lift capacity. The shuttle, while expensive, has proven itself as a reliable ‘space truck’ and has been indispensable in building the international space station. Lets continue to expand the ISS because who knows? Some day we might have company!

    1. I don’t know how reliable it is failure rate is still 1 in 100 mission results in a catastrophic loss of the vehicle and crew..

      The smart money is flying out the remaining missions safely and focusing on Orion and Direct.

  5. Both Nancy and Rhian have started to use the term NewSpace. Unless there is some etymology I’m unaware of, I presume space advocacy has made progress!

    And the new plan, however unrealistic, may be a way to cap the Soyuz US space market dominance at twice the current price. Good idea to have some backup (wherever they will find those ATK candles, perhaps there is a Constellation demo line)?

  6. NASA’s own NAUTILUS-X concept for a beyond Earth orbit doesn’t really require a heavy lifter and SpaceX has the Falcon 9 Heavy cleared for use at both KSC LC-40 and Vandenberg SLC-4E, and at 32 metric tons to LEO it’s a big step up from Delta IV Heavy.

    As for ISS expansion – NASA’s got the right idea by looking at using a Bigelow module, but Bigelow itself is slated to start building CSS Alpha as soon as their new Nevada factory opens, and they’re talking about more construction facilities closer to launch sites.

  7. I see the Cold War paranoias/neuroses are still rampant. If the only way into space is through the Russians so what? Is anyone really saying that the ‘pesky Rooskies’ are suddenly going to turn around and either hike the prices or point-blank refuse to launch a western payload? They need the money, they want to be accepted as a forward looking, modern nation [dodgy political shenanigans to one side] and I seriously doubt they have any agenda in grinding the capitalist running dogs of America into the dust. Most major nations realise the only to get anywhere is through cooperation. God’s teeth, this isn’t the 1950’s.

    1. “Is anyone really saying that the ‘pesky Rooskies’ are suddenly going to turn around and either hike the prices or point-blank refuse to launch a western payload?”

      Given the right political circumstances (another action in Eastern Europe that we oppose?), yes.

      And in any case, over-reliance on one system for manned access to LEO is just unwise, no matter how much you like or trust the Russians. Heaven forbid that there’s a serious Soyuz accident (which has happened twice, albeit long ago), where is the U.S. until they investigate and fix it? We went down that road twice with the Shuttle.

      “They need the money,”

      Yes, but not so much that politics won’t trump money. The end of the Cold War isn’t the end of politics, and each nation (including, say, China) having its own interests and agendas. U.S. (or any other) human space access shouldn’t rely on all nations playing nice, into the indefinite future…

  8. @ Paul Eaton-Jones

    What is so beneficial about having only one option for manned-space flight?

    Answer is: nothing.

    1. I wasn’t advocating one option. I was commenting on the whipping up of a fear of the US having to rely on the Russians for access to space while they make up their mind as to what they’re going to use in place of the shuttle. As far as I know there is no agenda in Russia to keep America on the ground.

  9. 2013? Is that not around the same date that Space X has stated they could be ready to initiate the launch of man rated capsules?

    I am still not clear as to why we are not pursuing these other launcher options ( I say ‘these’ because if I remember correctly, Delta, Atlas and others also have this option available) instead of floundering around like a fish out of water.

    I know you folks follow these things pretty closely, am I missing something here??? Is it just political or are there real technical hurdles that need to be cleared? There really does seem to be a lot of money to be saved by and already invested into firms such as Sapce X etc. and it would be a waste not to utilize them.


  10. Whatever they decide, they should definitely still keep one or two of the shuttles in a spaceworthy condition. That way, if something goes wrong on the ISS, they can still scramble an emergency mission.

  11. Unless I’m reading this wrong a private company wants to buy the shuttles and the infrastructure. This makes a lot of sense to me, much more than dismantling the system and retiring the orbiters to museums.

    I bet you they can perform a launch for less than 1/2 bil it runs NASA too. As for the why I, none of the proposed private launch vehicles has the payload or can operate in orbit autonomously like the shuttle. A mission to repair or replenish the coolant on an orbital telescope.

    1. USA is the same company that is currently under contract by NASA to process and launch the shuttles. USA is joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing. NASA doesn’t launch or build anything it’s all contracted out. They manage and integrate everything.

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