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.
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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.
“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.”