The Space Shuttle was Originally Hoped to be a Fully Reusable two-Stage Rocket

For anyone old enough to remember the 1980s, the Space Shuttle was an iconic symbol of spaceflight. For thirty years (1981-2011), this program flew 135 missions, which consisted of orbital science experiments, deploying satellites, launching interplanetary probes, participating in the Shuttle-Mir program, deploying the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and constructing the International Space Station (ISS). There were also tragedies along the way, such as the Challenger (1986) and Columbia disasters (2003).

But here’s an interesting and little-known fact: the actual design of the Space Shuttle could have been entirely different. Rather than the reusable Space Transportation System (STS) and expendable external tank (E.T.) and solid rocket boosters (SRB) we all remember, there was also a concept for a fully-reusable two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane (DC-3). In a lovely video by spaceflight animator Haze Gray Art (YouTube handle Hazegrayart), viewers get a chance to see what a full take-off and landing would have looked like.

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Approval For NASA Authorization Bill

NASA has unveiled a new exercise device that will be used by Orion crews to stay healthy on their mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

On Sept. 15th, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met to consider legislation formally introduced by a bipartisan group of senators. Among the bills presented was the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a measure designed to ensure short-term stability for the agency in the coming year.

And as of Thursday, Sept. 22nd, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, providing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017. This funding was intended for the purpose of advancing the agency’s plans for deep space exploration, the Journey to Mars, and operations aboard the International Space Station.

According to Senator Ted Cruz, the bill’s lead sponsor, the Act was introduced in order to ensure that NASA’s major programs would be stable during the upcoming presidential transition. As Cruz was quoted as saying by SpaceNews:

“The last NASA reauthorization act to pass Congress was in 2010. And we have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration: that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs.”

Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

This last act was known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010“, which authorized appropriations for NASA between the years of 2011-2013. In addition to providing a total of $58 billion in funding for those three years, it also defined long-term goals for the space agency, which included expanding human space flight beyond low-Earth orbit and developing technical systems for the “Journey to Mars”.

Intrinsic to this was the creation of the Space Launch System (SLS) as a successor to the Space Shuttle Program, the development of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, full utilization of the International Space Station, leveraging international partnerships, and encouraging public participation by investing in education.

These aims are outlined in Section 415 of the bill, titled “Stepping Stone Approach to Exploration“:

“In order to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the long-term exploration and utilization activities of the United States, the Administrator shall take all necessary steps, including engaging international, academic, and industry partners to ensure that activities in the Administration’s human exploration program balance how those activities might also help meet the requirements of future exploration and utilization activities leading to human habitation on the surface of Mars.”

NASA has unveiled a new exercise device that will be used by Orion crews to stay healthy on their mission to Mars. Credit: NASA
NASA has unveiled a new exercise device that will be used by Orion crews to stay healthy on their mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

While the passage of the bill is certainly good news for NASA’s bugeteers, it contains some provisions which could pose problems. For example, while the bill does provide for continued development of the SLS and Orion capsule, it advised that NASA find alternatives for its Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM), which is currently planned for the 2020s.

This mission, which NASA deemed essential for testing key systems and developing expertise for their eventual crewed mission to Mars, was cited for not falling within original budget constraints. Section 435 (“Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission“), details these concerns, stating that an initial estimate put the cost of the mission at $1.25 billion, excluding launch and operations.

However, according to a Key Decision Point-B review conducted by NASA on July 15th, 2016, a new estimate put the cost at $1.4 billion (excluding launch and operations). As a result, the bill’s sponsors concluded that ARM is in competition with other programs, and that an independent cost assessment and some hard choices may be necessary.

In Section 435, subsection b (parts 1 and 2), its states that:

“[T]he technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost; and alternative missions may provide a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars that would otherwise be demonstrated by the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission.”

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)
Artist’s impression of NASA’s ARM, which could be threatened by the agency’s new budget. Credit: NASA

The bill was also subject to amendments, which included the approval of funding for the development of satellite servicing technology. Under this arrangement, NASA would have the necessary funds to create spacecraft capable of repairing and providing maintenance to orbiting satellites, thus ensuring long-term functionality.

Also, Cruz and Bill Nelson (D-Fla), the committee ranking member, also supported an amendment that would indemnify companies or third parties executing NASA contracts. In short, companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin would now be entitled to compensation (above a level they are required to insure against) in the event of damages or injuries incurred as a result of launch and reentry services being provided.

According to a Commerce Committee press release, Sen. Bill Nelson had this to say about the bill’s passage:

“I want to thank Chairman Thune and the members of the committee for their continued support of our nation’s space program. Last week marked the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade.  The NASA bill we passed today keeps us moving toward a new and even more ambitious goal – sending humans to Mars.”

With the approval of the Commerce Committee, the bill will now be sent to the Senate for approval. It is hoped that the bill will pass through the Senate quickly so it can be passed by the House before the year is over. Its supporters see this as crucial to maintaining NASA’s funding in the coming years, during which time they will be taking several crucial steps towards the proposed crewed mission to Mars.

Further Reading: SpaceNews,

Spaceflight Will Give You The Body Of An Elderly Alcoholic Shut In

Atlantis lifts off on the last launch of the shuttle program, STS-135, on July 8, 2011. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

At least, that was what the results of a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus suggest. After examining a group of test mice that spent two weeks in space aboard STS-135 – the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle program – they concluded that spending prolonged periods of time in space could in fact result liver damage.

For some time now, scientists have understood that exposure to zero-gravity or micro-gravity environments comes with its share of health effects. But so far, the research has been largely confined to other areas of the human body. Understanding the effects it has on internal organs and other aspects of one’s health are of extreme importance as NASA begins preparations for a crewed mission to Mars.

Continue reading “Spaceflight Will Give You The Body Of An Elderly Alcoholic Shut In”

What Does NASA Stand For?

NASA Logo. Credit: NASA

Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.

But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

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Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad

Space Shuttle Atlantis and cargo canister at Launch Pad 39A for Final Shuttle Flight. This view shows the delivery of the cargo canister – white rectangular box - with the payloads for the last shuttle mission; STS-135. The canister has been hoisted up the Rotating Service Structure, at right, for installation into the orbiters payload bay. Credit: Ken Kremer


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The cargo canister for NASA’s final space shuttle mission was delivered to the sea-side launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and hoisted up the pads massive launch pad gantry early Friday (June 17).

NASA is targeting a July 8 blastoff of the STS-135 mission with Space Shuttle Atlantis and the last cargo a shuttle will ever haul to space. The 60 foot long cargo canister is the size of a shuttle payload bay.

The STS-135 mission is the very final flight of the three decade long Space Shuttle Era and is slated for liftoff at 11:26 a.m. EDT from Launch Pad 39A. The flight is scheduled to last 12 days and will be NASA’s 36th and last shuttle mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis will deliver the Italian- built “Raffaello” logistics module to the orbiting outpost.

Raffaello is loaded full with about 5 tons of critical space parts, crew supplies and experiments to sustain space station operations once the shuttles are retired at the conclusion of the STS-135 mission, according to Joe Delai, NASA’s Payload Processing Manager for the STS-135 mission.

Close up of top of shuttle Atlantis stack at Launch Pad 39 A
Astronauts will walk through the White Room at left to enter Atlantis crew cabin. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA technicians at the launch pad have closed the cocoon-like Rotating Service Structure (RSS) back around the orbiter to gain access to the vehicles payload bay. Atlantis’ payload bay doors will be opened Saturday night and the cargo will be installed into the shuttle’s cargo bay on Monday (June 20).

The secondary payload is dubbed the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) – a sort of “gas station in space” said Delai, who spoke to me at Pad 39A.

Joe Delai, NASA STS-135 Payload Processing manager, answers media queries at Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Pad workers were also busy on Saturday (June 18) with work to begin the collection of high resolution X-ray scans of Atlantis External Tank at certain support ribs on the shuttle facing side, according to Allard Beutel, a NASA KSC shuttle spokesman.

“The technicians will scan the tops and bottoms of 50 support beams, called stringers, to confirm that there are no issues following the tanking test conducted by NASA this week at the launch pad”, Beutel said.

The reinforcing stringers were installed after minute cracks were discovered during the propellant loading of 535,000 gallons of super cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen into the fuel tank during the initial launch attempt of the STS-133 mission in November 2010. “No problems are expected and this work is just being done as a precautionary measure.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits atop Launch Complex 39 A at Sunrise at the Kennedy Space Center
The last ever shuttle flight will blast off on July 8. Credit: Ken Kremer

During the tanking test, a potential fuel leak was discovered in a hydrogen fuel valve in Space Shuttle Main Engine No. 3, the right most engine.

“Technicians will spend the next week swapping out the engine valve with a new one and conduct tests to verify the fix solved the problem,” Buetel told me. “NASA expects the work can be completed with no delay to the July 8 launch.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to blastoff on July 8 on NASA’s Final Shuttle Mission; STS-135. Credit: Ken Kremer

The engine leak would have been a show stopper and scrubbed the launch if this had been the real countdown on July 8, said Beutel – to the huge disappointment of the 500,000 to 750,000 folks expected to pack the Florida Space Coast.

The hydrogen valve replacement and X-Ray scans are being completed in parallel out at the pad.

The STS-135 crew of four veteran shuttle astronauts is led by Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson. Also aboard are Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The crew will fly to into the Kennedy Space Center from Houston aboard their T-38 jets on Monday for several days of pre-launch training.

I will be covering the STS-135 launch for Universe Today on site at the KSC Press site, location of the world famous countdown clock.

Ken Kremer and Space Shuttle Atlantis on top of Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery
Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time

Credit: Ken Kremer


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – For the last time in history, Atlantis and the shuttle program have literally gone vertical. Following the rollover of Atlantis into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the orbiter was attached to a massive crane and then hoisted and mated to the External Tank and twin Solid Rocket boosters that will power her 25th and last climb to orbit.

Myself and a small band of lucky photo journalists were privileged to witness this milestone on the way to blastoff of the STS-135 mission, the last one of the three decade long shuttle era. Check out a selection of my images in this photo album for Universe Today readers. I’ll post a few now and more later as Atlantis prepares to rollout to Launch Pad 39 A.

The STS-135 mission remains on target for liftoff on July 8 at about 11:40 a.m. EDT on a 12 day flight to deliver critical parts, science experiments, gear, crew supplies and provisions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Credit: Ken Kremer

Credit: Ken Kremer

Credit: Ken Kremer

Credit: Ken Kremer

Credit: Ken Kremer

Credit: Ken Kremer

Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior story about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff