Should the Shuttle program be extended?

By Phil Plait | March 1, 2010 8:00 am

NASA questionOver at Universe Today, Nancy Atkinson has written an interesting piece on whether NASA should consider extending the Shuttle program, which is currently planned to end in September of this year (or thereabouts, depending on delays). After that, NASA will rely heavily on private companies to ferry cargo to orbit, and eventually humans as well.

My thoughts on this are already a matter of record: I don’t think NASA should be in the business of doing anything routine, and several companies are gearing up to take over flights to low-Earth orbit (or LEO as it’s called). SpaceX may be ready as early as late this year for unmanned trips to the space station.

However, no private company has yet made a cargo launch capable of reaching ISS, and there may still be a gap in our ability to get into space. Extending the Shuttle program sounds like a good idea, but I have three concerns: safety, money, and NASA’s ability to extend it.

1) Safety. As far as that goes, I’m no expert, but the people on the blue-ribbon Augustine Commission certainly were. In their report last year to President Obama they said:

However, one option [we examined] does provide for an extension of the Shuttle at a minimum safe flight rate to preserve U.S. capability to launch astronauts into space. If that option is selected, there should be a thorough review of Shuttle recertification and overall Shuttle reliability to ensure that the risk associated with that extension would be acceptable.

In other words, as long as it’s safe, and the schedule isn’t too fast to preclude handling safety concerns, it’s not so bad (and in the UT article, Shuttle Integration Manager Mike Moses agrees). OK, so perhaps that’s an option. However, even so…

2) Money. The Shuttle is very expensive, and there isn’t a lot of money for it in the budget, even if we radically overhaul what the President submitted. I’m not sure I see how we can give money to the private companies so they can develop their tech at the same time we keep the Shuttle running. That would delay the companies’ advancement, which would extend the Shuttle further. That’s a snake eating its own tail.

Still, some folks want to fight to extend the Shuttle in the budget. I had to smile a bit when I read this quote by U.S. Representative Suzanne Kosmas:

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal was not acceptable as is because it would cede the United States’ leadership position in spaceflight in the short term — and possibly the long term.

I disagree with this statement, since within a year we’ll be using U.S. companies to send cargo to the ISS, and humans in three. We already can’t put humans in space all that often with the Shuttle, and once it retires this year (a plan that has been in effect a while now, since the Bush Administration) there will be a long gap before NASA could put people in space anyway. But I also happen to be a tad skeptical about opinions from politicians when their districts include NASA centers. I’m not saying I don’t trust her, but I am saying that the most vocal people I have heard in Congress are from folks who fall into that category (such as Alabama politicians).

However, that looming gap in space capable launches is almost on us. Extending the Shuttle might have traction politically, which means financially. But…

3) Ability. Can NASA even do this? The program has been winding down for some time; even one launch pad has been converted to use by Constellation, which itself may never get past the blueprint stage (I disregard here the Ares 1-X which many consider to be nothing more than a publicity stunt). Lots of workers have been looking for other jobs. And I wonder if the administrative side of NASA would even be able to figure out how to put together another launch or series of launches in time before Space X can start lofting cargo. I’m not clear on how quickly they could turn this around, even if Congress told them "Go" today. And, of course, Congress is not known for being light on its feet either.

So my thinking is that even if it’s safe, and politically expedient, I’m not clear on its worth. It depends on how much it would cost, how possible it is logistically, and if it makes sense to spend a billion or so per launch of the Shuttle when it would be far cheaper to hitch a ride on a Soyuz or three while we wait for industry to catch up.

So I’m not sure how this would work out. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays in Congress, and as it does, I’ll be paying attention.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: Shuttle, SpaceX

Comments (72)

  1. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Yes – I think the shuttle should be extended.

    They are remarkable machines which I love to see soar and I really hate the thought of America not flying something of its own into space for any period of time.

    I do think it is NASA’s role to provide the (quite literal! ;-) ) shuttle service up to the International Space Station not for the Russians to give Western astronauts a lift there on their ancient Souyz which lets not forget is far older than the Shuttles and is not without safety issues of its own.

    Plus sorry, BA, but I do not share your confidence or optimism in the private companies doing the job anytime soon. I’ll believe that only when I see it. One day maybe, but not yet and I think national space agencies will be the main path into space for some decades to come still.

    I would urge keeping the shuttles going – maybe building new updated versions &/or modifying and improving the one’s we’ve got – until we have something better immediately ready to replace them.

  2. Cheyenne

    No – I think the shuttle should be terminated.

  3. Oli

    Why not just use the Soyuz and NASA’s own rockets (like Delta and stuff) until the Dragon is ready? And invest part of the Shuttle budget in companies like Space X, and spend the rest on new missions. I’d much rather see a Cassini to Uranus than the ISS.

  4. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Typo correction – ‘Soyuz’ not ‘Souyz’ is what I meant there, d’oh! Mea Culpa. :-(

    For info. on them see : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soyuz_(spacecraft)

    @ 2. Cheyenne – Would you expand on that a bit & explain *why* you want the shuttles terminated, please?

    @ 3. Oli – Ouranos*? I’d rather see another mission to Pluto or even Neptune or Eris than there speaking personally! ;-)

    * http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=189939051777&ref=ts

    (Hopefully that’ll work & is the right site. Can’t check it until times up, alas.)

    PS. I really hope Congress does override Obama on the cancellation of the Ares-Constellation program. I think Obama has made a terrible mistake in his decision there & feel very let-down, betrayed and saddened by it.

  5. Speaker2a

    Phil,
    How do the costs of sending men and materials on Soyuz compare with a shuttle launch?

  6. Rick W.

    What a mess!

    We cancelled the shuttle program, started Constellation and funding of private companies. The private companies are, understandably, taking a long time to get into production mode. We seem to be cancelling the Constellation program. And the shuttle shutdown is so far in that there is no real way to backtrack and extend the shuttle program.

    The US Manned Space Program is a real mess right now.

  7. Charles Boyer

    Your “humans in three years” statement is based on best-case scenarios, Phil. That’s awfully brave to do considering that the bird that projection is based upon has never flown off its nest.

    As for pad c0ncerns with the STS, LC-39 still has one operational Shuttle pad, and given that any extension would be ISS-oriented, there would not be a need for a rescue bird on standby as it was with STS-125. That said, Pad 39B could be maintained and used as is, because if Constellation is indeed canceled (something FAR FAR FAR from being decided BTW) there is no other use for it, for the crawlers and for the VAB itself.

    Meanwhile, Boeing was selected by NASA on Feb. 1 to develop critical technologies and capabilities for the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative, which offers an opportunity for the aerospace industry to develop concepts for future crewed space missions. Let’s see…hmmm…Boeing and Lockheed are in a JV called United Launch Alliance and both have quite an extensive history when it comes to manned space flight hardware…for example, Boeing Huntsville had a minor role in Apollo: the first stage of the Saturn V.

    If SpaceX slips, they will be chasing ULA. After all, according to industry experts there are no major technical hurdles to man-rate the Atlas V 401 configuration.

  8. Charles Boyer

    “Why not just use the Soyuz and NASA’s own rockets (like Delta and stuff) until the Dragon is ready? ”

    Because those Delta and Atlas rockets are not man-rated. Yet. Nor are they easily compatible with a Soyuz capsule. The problem is not the capsule, rather, it is the boosters that need to be tested and rated human capable.

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/07/why-nasa-isnt-t/

  9. Mike

    The Shuttle is like a boxcar. If there is no cargo to fill it why is it needed. It served it’s roll well in building the ISS and if there was more cargo hauling needed it should be kept operational. It is far cheaper to launch sats with traditional launch systems and humans with the Soyus until private enterprize gets it act together. I always felt the STS was not the best way for humans to get to LEO and after each of the tragic losses that was just reinforced. Remember the gap between Apollo and the STS? If this gap can be less we will be in good shape and we do have support of the Russians this time. Space is international so don’t put down Russia’s support.

  10. Attended a conference of swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier where he said : “It’s a pity : now that the shuttle is finally reliable, it’s terminated.” I think the real pity is that there is no replacement today for those old shuttles, so there is no choice: extend, and even build new shuttles until another vehicle is available and reliable enough.

  11. Doc

    Wasn’t there some sort of unofficial proposal by some NASA employees a few months back for an alternative to Constellation? I remember it used modified Shuttle equipment and looked plausible (to someone who is not a rocket scientist).

  12. The Captian

    I have to wonder, you say “I don’t think NASA should be in the business of doing anything routine”, but if NASA can not do the “routine” then how are they going to do the “extraordinary”? Just look at the main reasons cited by people for Constellation to be cancelled, it was taking too long, going over budget, and people thought there could have been a “better” design. But why was that the case, because NASA has been out of the business of leaving low earth orbit for so long, they had to relearn how to do it, and start over. Every time we cut something from NASA, we then cite the lack of experience to justify cutting it again latter. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy, and with the cancelation of constellation I fear NASA will start to loose the expertise in maned space flight all together, so then when the next time a need ,or opportunity comes for NASA to put men in space, they will have to relearn in again, going “over budget”, taking “too long” and then get cancelled again, ending our ability to put men anything but low earth orbit, and then only IF private companies can do it. NASA would loose the ability completely.

  13. I don’t think the money reason is a valid one. The budget is so small, and there is so much government waste, if the political will was there, they could find the money.

    That said, NASA seems like such a mess, I’m looking forward to the privatization of space launches.

  14. T_U_T

    yeah. Great question. Should losers be allowed to use things like space shuttles ?

  15. Nemo

    Shuttle is the most advanced spaceship designed in the 1970′s. Yes, kill it already.

  16. 3 years? That does seem mighty optimistic.

    One thing that I am concerned about is the loss of expertise as shuttle workers lose their jobs at the end of the program. Although the few that I have met are very smart and capable and I doubt they’d have trouble finding a good job elsewhere, but then manned space flight loses their expertise as we move forward. I heard Bolden say last week in front of Congress that he’d be happy to hold private companies’ feet to the fire to get them to hire on those ex-shuttle workers and keep them in the field, but he acknowledged that he has no real authority in that. It would be such a waste to lose them in this transition.

  17. What about buying the Soyuz system from the Russians and selling it to private U.S. companies?

  18. Charles Boyer

    Doc, you are talking about the Direct 2.0 / Jupiter system, and it, like Ares 1 or V, is little more than a paper rocket….meaning that it has never been assembled and tested. Sure, it uses common STS components, but that’s not the same as building it and launching it.

    For the optimistic view, directlauncher.com has all you need.

    Popular Mechanics (yeah, I know, not exactly a great rocket science journal) has a very decent article at popularmechanics.com/science/air_space/4295233.html?page=3&series=35

  19. XMark

    I’m withholding optimism in SpaceX until they successfully launch their Falcon 9. Then I’ll break out the champagne for private space travel.

  20. Lawrence

    The Shuttles are past their prime – I wish there had been constant follow-up improvements & construction of new Shuttles (for the past thirty years), because we might have a very well-maintained fleet of relatively young & functional LEO vehicles right now, instead of the musuem-quality pieces we have right now.

    We are paying for the mistakes of the last thirty years in regards to manned space travel (and put the blame squarely on the shoulders of politicians who find it easier to fund the military and massive social programs than space-based technology – well, that isn’t immediately weaponized).

  21. oldebabe

    Yes, you’ve got it, i.e. finish/terminate the Shuttle… IMO, too many costs for too few practical benefits (see Bob Park’s take on this). Let’s move on, however, whatever.

  22. oldebabe

    Yes, you’ve got it, i.e. finish/terminate the Shuttle. IMO, too many coss for too few practical benefits (see Bob Park’s take on this, too). Lets move on, however, whatever.

  23. Gary Ansorge

    So, we didn’t have the money to build another, more advanced model of the shuttle, so we waited until the old model was at its design limit to begin thinking about the replacement.

    Sounds like typical political non-planning. Sometimes I think politicians are worse than industry when it comes to planning future projects, always looking at current share prices(or political popularity) rather than future needs.

    Same as AGW,,,

    I think we should consider replacing popular votes for politicians with drafting politicians. Then competent people would be in such a hurry to return to their well paying industry jobs they’d initiate whatever good programs were necessary, despite their political unpopularity.

    ,,,just a thought,,,

    I suspect when NASA engineers say the shuttle is near its end, they should be the experts we heed.

    GAry 7

  24. Except for servicing Hubble, I still don’t see the scientific justification for the Shuttle, or the ISS, for that matter. The original idea of an ISS was as part of a manned flight program to the Moon and Mars. Both are off the table for decades. I’d prefer to see NASA’s budget fund as many pure science efforts as possible, and that means un-manned missions.

  25. We don’t need a scientific justification for the Shuttle. It is a transportation system. Nowhere have seen mentioned or discussed the loss of a major capability the Orbiters provide: the ability to return from space large payloads. What value would it be to return the HST for an analysis of its structural components and the long term effect of the near-earth space environment on them. Some day we will be able to do all that in situ or through remote sensing, but by then we could lose our test subject. It could be very soon that commercial heavy-lift vehicles would exist that rival the Orbiter, but for all of them their return payload from orbit is zero.

  26. BR

    The question I’ve never heard a good answer to regarding shuttle extension is what would NASA do with new missions? There is currently no useful hardware designed for the shuttle payload bay once all ISS components are launched. That is, no more station hardware and no other leftover shuttle-compatible satellites. It seems to me then that all we would do with shuttle extension missions is crew-rotation and resupply to the ISS, and I see no reason that should be cost-effective compared to crew-rotation by Soyuz and cargo resupply via the numerous automated resupply vehicles (Progress, ATV, eventually Dragon, etc) that already exist.

  27. Charles Boyer

    Here’s an interesting set of quotes from Burt Rutan (of Spaceship One fame) had to say about private flight:

    “In short, it is a good idea indeed for the commercial community to compete to re-supply the ISS and to bring about space access for the public to enjoy. I applaud the efforts of SpaceX, Virgin and Orbital in that regard and feel these activities should have been done at least two decades ago. However, I do not see the commercial companies taking Americans to Mars or to the moons of Saturn within my lifetime and I doubt if they will take the true Research risks (technical and financial) to fly new concepts that have low confidence of return on investment. Even NASA, regarded as our prime Research agency has not recently shown a willingness to fly true Research concepts.

    For years I have stated that a NASA return-to-moon effort must include true Research content, i.e. testing new concepts needed to enable forefront Exploration beyond the moon. The current Ares/Orion does not do that. While I have been critical of Constellation for that reason, I do not think that NASA should ‘give up’ on manned spaceflight, just that they should be doing it while meeting the 1) or 2) criteria above.

    Some have guessed that my recent comments are based on my overall displeasure with the Obama Administration. they are not; however it does seem that the best technical minds in U.S. industry are still striving to find HOW America can continue to be “exceptional”, while the Administration does not want America to BE “exceptional”.

    Burt Rutan

  28. Travis D

    My worry is that we retire the Shuttle and then suddenly need to launch something heavy but, with the Ares V being canceled too, have no way to do it. We can’t rely on the Russians for that because their only heavy lifter has been retired too and I have not heard of any proposals from the commercial sector for a private heavy launcher.

  29. ASFalcon13

    One thing to think about the Space Shuttle is that many of the manufacturing lines closed down a long time ago. In some cases, not only are some shuttle parts not made anymore, but the vendors that produced these parts no longer exist either. In some cases, there are less than the required number of parts necessary to outfit the entire fleet, but no replacements are available; they’re just not built anymore. Therefore, parts are pulled from a returning shuttle and fitted to the next shuttle to go up. Of course, this increases the flight rate of those parts, so they’ll reach the end-of-life earlier than they would if there were enough to go around.

    Some parts have already reached end-of-life, but continue to fly anyway (with modified operational rules in place), since there are no replacements available. The Wikipedia entry for Atlantis describes an example of this situation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Atlantis#Aging

    As Lawrence stated, if we would have continued to build shuttles, we might now have a fleet of relatively young vehicles, and readily-available replacement parts. However, we don’t have that. Phil, I believe that your assessment of the readiness of NewSpace companies to take the reins of US human spaceflight is overly optimistic. However, that’s a discussion for another day…to answer the question on the table, even though I don’t believe that the NewSpace folks are ready to bear the burden of the entire US human spaceflight program, I believe that it would be unwise to rely on the Space Shuttle beyond its current manifest.

  30. Jamey

    Problem number one with the ISS – it was designed as a spiderweb of tiny modules, pretty much guaranteed to return the least volume for the most surface area (aka, material needed to build). Projects started by NASA have kept getting cut off at the knees – DynaSoar, DC-X, etc. We should have long ago started the specialization of vehicles – a crew ferry could be *FAR* smaller than the Shuttle, perhaps small enough to only need two SRBs to get it to orbit, instead of the SRB and a huge external fuel tank. The heavy lifter cargo vehicle wouldn’t have had to worry so much about insulation from the the tank damaging re-entry tiles, as it would have been *INTENDED* to stay up there, to serve either as new space, or as a resource to be recycled at a later date. Of course, a generalist vehicle, such as the current shuttle, would be a good thing as well – sometimes you *DO* need something that can do a variety of things at once. You need both generalized tools *and* specialized tools to do the best job. Unfortunately, all we have is a *MESS*. A mess seemingly aimed at *NOT* getting anything done.

    Remember the stories of the 50s, where the Space Stations served as staging areas for assembly of vehicles for going further – to the Moon, to Mars, to Venus, etc? How *DID* things get this messed up?

  31. Ray

    Yeah, lets extend the shuttles another few years beyond their programmed service lives. Then when the next one fails catastrophically we can all blame NASA for it and claim to have seen it coming in the first place. /sarc off

    I do not agree that we should extend the shuttles for 3 reasons:

    1) safety. We’ve already lost two and each loss was followed by comprehensive safety reviews, the first of which did not prevent the loss of the 2nd. I have little confidence in an aging platform and a NASA bureaucracy run by bean counters who have historically ignored the engineers and scientists.
    2) Cost. The Shuttle is expensive and takes money from other programs with potential. Take the shuttle money and spend it on a replacement. Now.
    3) Incentive. As long as the shuttle flies there is a negative incentive to build its replacement. Retire it now and the pressure will be on to build a new one.

  32. Yes it should be extended. We still need to get astronauts into orbit and relying on Russia is not a good alternative. It’s going to be at least 5 years before civilian companies will be able to launch people into orbit and then that will be 1.0, there will need to be further refinement and tests before they are truly viable.

    The situation shows the shear stupidity of whats been going on in NASA. NASA has been doing allot of good things but there are morons in NASA. They should have started working on a replacement for the shuttle more than twenty years ago, a replacement that will do what the shuttle was supposed to do.

  33. Tom (H. Type)

    Phil,

    I don’t agree
    “Space X may be ready as early as late this year for unmanned trips to the space station.”

    1. Has not demonstrated orbital capability (with or without cargo).

    2. Has not demonstrated controlability or stability to manuver anywhere near ISS. Any little uncontrolled bump of ISS will cause stuff to go “Tango Uniform” real quik.

    3. Who will Insure this private venture?

    4. Will be many (well funded) years before even the most basic safety factors are confirment to the extent necessary to make Space -X a viable tool and allow cargo delivery to ISS.

    Tom

  34. Charles Boyer

    “NASA has been doing allot of good things but there are morons in NASA. They should have started working on a replacement for the shuttle more than twenty years ago”

    You mean the one that they asked for post-Challenger? Ever heard of Shuttle C and other proposals?

    Really, before you call anyone a moron you should at least Google and see for yourself that SDV, or Shuttle Derived Vehicle proposals have been kicked around since 1987.

  35. Floyd

    I’m a chemical engineer, not a rocket scientist. I grew up watching the original astronauts go to space, then land on the Moon (and was at the award ceremony for Neil Armstrong’s honorary doctorate from Purdue after Apollo 11) so take my comments for what they’re worth.

    1. First, extend the Shuttle program at least temporarily, so we have a way to move people and equipment to and from the Space Station. Murphy’s Law happens, usually in the worst possible way. See Apollo 13.

    2. Build a Space Shuttle replacement. Soyuz is apparently a good system, but from what I can tell (not being a NASA insider), it can’t ferry large equipment to repair or replace Station modules.

    3. NASA and Russia should think for the long term, not the short term when designing their equipment. This is the time to think about how to safely go for the Moon and Mars. The rest of us have no idea what’s being planned, so let the world know what’s going on.

    4. Plan for commercial space travel.

    http://www.spaceportamerica.com/

    Spaceport America and Space Ship Two are good first steps, but the first planned step is a zero G space ride. Instead, there should be competition among providers to build reusable systems that can get to the Space Station and back, repeatedly, can launch their own space stations, and that can do real work in space.

  36. Kevyn

    You mean the proposals that were cut in favour of a space station that the States could never complete on their own? Just because they came up with the idea doesn’t mean they aren’t morons for not following it through. They still should have followed the replacement through to its’ conclusion before haring off after the next shiny toy to cross the table at a budget meeting.

  37. Peter Graf

    I might be out of my depth by joining this discussion, but here goes my bit. I think the Shuttle program should be extended because the gap in capability to place cargo and humans might be as long as 7 years, according to the Human Space Flight Program Committee (a.k.a. the Augustine Commission, see final report at http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/396093main_HSF_Cmte_FinalReport.pdf). Iḿ just a layman with light interest in space issues, yet I found the Report quite easy to read, and enlightening also. How to keep the Shuuttle program going is a different matter. I understand that funding is projected only until the end of FY 2010 and continuing the program would not only require funds but also re-comissioning the ships (can anyone shed a light on how such a process works?).

    I understand that the various programs to replace the Shuttle prrogram are not yet operational and would not be until well past the original decomissioning date for the ISS.

    As for commercial lifting capabilities, the HSF Commission makes a good point when mentioning how commercial air travel was developed in the 1930ś and 1940ś, by awarding compamies contracts as an incentive to develop the hardware.

    If I may inquire, can anyone direct me to a discussion board about GOALS in space, instead of just destinations? I also would be interested in joining a blog about the proposed decomissioning of the ISS. Much obliged in advance.

  38. MadScientist

    “However, no private company has yet made a cargo launch capable of reaching ISS…”

    In Europe there is the Automated Transfer Vehicle (first of the type being Jules Verne) which was built primarily by the giant EADS (pronounced “AIDS” – the bosses know this although they try to deny it and change the pronounciation – I guess they can be called “AIDS deniers”) which is a private corporation. The first mission, which was successful, was to demonstrate a number of in-flight approach maneuvers and to deliver cargo to the ISS.

    I would not be in favor of keeping the shuttle fleet going; the youngest, Endeavor, was the replacement for the Challenger and is almost 20 years old. The others are closer to 30 . It’s not so much the age as the horrible forces they are subject to; each flight they go through increases the chances of failures.

    Looking back at the ESA vehicle, development cost was reportedly ~1.4B euro with the production cost of a vehicle being around 200M euro. The Ariane 5 launch vehicle took ~10 years development and (on the Wikipedia) ~7B$ cost. These are indicative of the costs that private companies must bear – and they must recover their expenses somehow. I think after NASA has sunk money into helping companies develop the next set of rockets and crew/cargo vehicles, we need some genuine international competition to gain any cost advantages.

  39. neil

    The extension of the shuttle is based on the need to reach the ISS. Problem is, why do we need to reach the ISS? Exactly what do those folks do up there that merits this sort of expense? I’d like to see a list of the scientific accomplishments of the ISS.

  40. Shuttle C is one of those serious proposals that could have even alternated with manned flights and would have been particularly useful with ISS construction – however it didn’t happen and we are now left with a very aged fleet of manned-only shuttles as a legacy. Spilt milk and all that – the time of the shuttle is passing which is sad in a way, but exciting in a whole new range of ways.

  41. justcorbly

    We already can’t put humans in space all that often with the Shuttle…

    That’s an important point, Phil. The Shuttle has fallen far short of its targeted launch frequency, which, as I recall, was something like once every two weeks. (Did anyone really envision funding anything that would require a Shuttle launch every two weeks? What would that have been?)

    Real space travel begins after you leave LEO. We need a reliable way to carry hardware and people to LEO, ideally on a moment’s notice. For all its glory and the warm fuzzies we get when we see it fly, the Shuttle can’t do that.

    It’s time to let someone else worry about hauling people to and from the airport.

  42. Travis D

    Actually the shuttle retirement is a plot point in my comet impact screenplay. The interceptor vehicles are too heavy to be put in orbit by any existing launcher and with the shuttle retired NASA has no way to launch them. They end up using Russian boosters but they have to use multiple launches to put one interceptor in orbit and this severely handicaps our ability to launch an appropriate number of them. This, combined with the sabotage of what few interceptors are launched, is what dooms our efforts to divert the comet.

  43. Steve D

    Deja vu all over again. Use the money for “problems here on earth.” Just like we did after Apollo. Can anyone tell me one single thing we got once we diverted the Apollo money to social programs?

    Private enterprise? Sure. Look how well they’re handling the economy and health care. Of course these Wunderkinder can launch rockets better than NASA.

  44. Rob

    Alas, the die are cast. Too many departments have been pulled apart for the shuttle program to soldier on. Just as we haven’t had the ability to build new orbiters for about 20 years, we’re past the point of no return vis a vis the shuttle. It’s tragic that we don’t have a follow-on ready to go, or even an agreed upon plan, for that matter. Stupid, unconscionable, and already done.

  45. G Cronk

    No The Shuttle program should shut down as scheduled. The New Budget for NASA included directives for part of it to be used to work with private corporations. NASA is good at research, have them team up with some of the Space-X guys and share their experience, they can quite possibly get Dragon off the ground much faster. Already Falcon 9 is supposed to launch some time this year, and a portion of it’s purpose is to meet contracts with NASA for resupplying the ISS. Extending the Shuttle would just slow down the time line and inhibit NASA’s willingness to adopt these.

    There are many advancements in the works that should if successful benefit going beyond LEO, the issue is none of them are really practical when used in conjunction with the Shuttle. Modular Launch Vehicles will make more sense when you consider incorporating newer technology because you aren’t breaking the mold every single time you go to update.

  46. gss_000

    Just realize that even if the shuttle was extended, there still would be a gap. As Florida Today reported (which, BTW, the Universe Today piece is based off of), the External Tanks need to be built. These require a long lead time and right now no more are being made. So even if they said today they are going to extend the shuttle, there wouldn’t be enough time to get one ready.

  47. John M

    Shuttle is still the heaviest manned launch vehicle available. Soyuz cannot put up as many men, nor can it support a full crew on the ISS. Cancelling Shuttle means drastically scaling back the ISS crew, which will eliminate much of the science potential of the Station, since most of the remaining crew will be doing maintenance and housekeeping type work instead of science. Considering the size of NASA’s budget compared to the hundreds of Billions thrown around today, canceling Shuttle to save money is a lot like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teaspoon. Can Shuttle be extended? Should it be? It’s probably too late to even ask that. But unless we have a solid projection on a replacement with enough lift capacity, I’d lean towards extending the program.

  48. Charles Boyer

    “Private enterprise? Sure. Look how well they’re handling the economy and health care. ”

    Oddly enough, I work for a private enterprise that not only is good for my wallet, affording me a comfortable life, but I also have darned good health care available for a reasonable cost. Gee, I guess getting an education and working hard does have some value after all!

    “I’d like to see a list of the scientific accomplishments of the ISS.”

    First, show me the list of important accomplishments attained by Lawrence Livermore or Sandia in their first year of completion.

    “I would not be in favor of keeping the shuttle fleet going; the youngest, Endeavor, was the replacement for the Challenger and is almost 20 years old. The others are closer to 30 . It’s not so much the age as the horrible forces they are subject to; each flight they go through increases the chances of failures.”

    You do realize that they are constantly examined and retrofitted when parts are suspect – to spaceflight tolerances, right? It’s not like Endeavor was rolled into the garage and will be slung unto booster before its next flight.

    Search for “V30 OMRSD File III airframe inspection” and you’ll find a lot of clues as to how it is inspected prior to and after a flight.

  49. KC

    Should it be extended? Yes – but as ASFalcon13 and others pointed out it isn’t really an option. The contracts have expired, you just don’t have the parts and supplies – and the companies that made them are gone.

    The Bush administration decided the cancel the program five full years ago. You can’t just decide to change direction at this point.

  50. Plutonium being from Pluto

    One other note – I sometimes think we are trying to make the Shuttle and other spacecraft and rocket systems just impossibly safe & are too unwilling to take necessary risks.

    Space travel, to me, is in the same class of activity as mountaineering or motor-racing or sky-diving – or, indeed, even just driving a car on our roads today.

    People have & always will be at risk of dying in accidents and yet they think these risks are worthwhile and still do them and accept the inevitable casualties as a sad but inevitable part of the whole business.

    When mountaineers die mountain-climbing other mountaineers are not deterred – they go ahead and climb anyhow even when they’ve lost close friends as you can read about in some of Joe Simpson’s books, eg. Touching the Void. When F1 racing cars crash and drivers are killed – the race isn’t even stopped! I recall that from personal experience when one of my heroes in that sport, Ayrton Senna was killed before my eyes live on TV in a crash in the San Marino Grand Prix back in 1994.

    Racing drivers, mountaineers, sky-divers, scuba-divers, stunt men – & astronauts, cosmonauts & taikonauts too – they all know the risks they take and happily take them regardless. We even know the risks in driving on the roads or flying even as passengers in planes and balloons ourselves.

    No one expects that when something goes wrong and one or more people are killed doing such activities everything in that area is halted forever or even comes to a standstill for years as happened with the shuttles. :-(

    So it should be with spaceflight. If I was an astronaut then I would choose to take the risk and fly – personally, if I perished on re-entry or even lift-off it would be worth it & would NOT stop me. I wouldn’t *want* it to happen but I know and am willing to accept the calculated risk that it could. And if the worst happened & I was killed doing what I loved then I wouldn’t want it to mean such long delays and problems for the space agency involved – I’d want folks to keep flying. If they could fin out about and fix whatever killed me great, but if they couldn’t well, the show must go on anyhow.

    So yes, make things safe as possible, learn from tragedies like the Challenger and Columbia ones & try to stop them happening again but for Flying Sphaghetti Monster’s sake :

    KEEP FLYING!

    Keep things like the Shuttle going because it is well worth the risks involved.

    We cannot make life safe anyhow, there will always be dangers, we can and should minimise things but not let danger stop us. Stuff the cotton wool approach and lets just light thees candles! (To paraphrase Alan Shepherd, first astronaut.)

    Explorers have always died pushing the envelope and discovering the world and beyond. We’re all going to die anyhow. We might as well die well! ;-)

    In My Humble Opinion Naturally.

  51. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @11. Doc Says:

    Wasn’t there some sort of unofficial proposal by some NASA employees a few months back for an alternative to Constellation? I remember it used modified Shuttle equipment and looked plausible (to someone who is not a rocket scientist).

    There have been a few suggestsions made DIRECT to name one but did you perhaps mean the NASA’s Plan B which the BA blogged about here complete with videoclip :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/07/03/nasas-plan-b/

    last year?

    I like the look of that one myself.

    Hopefully, we won’t have ourselves too burdened down with the three terrible life-draining chains of excessive risk averseness, excessive political correctness and worst of all funding “shortfalls” to accomplish great & wonderful things again.

  52. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 31. Ray Says:

    Yeah, lets extend the shuttles another few years beyond their programmed service lives. Then when the next one fails catastrophically we can all blame NASA for it and claim to have seen it coming in the first place. /sarc off

    Personally, I (& others who think like me) have never blamed NASA for the shuttle failures – it is sad that others did. My view of them is, well, pretty much what you read in # 50 above.

    Stuff happens – sometimes horrible stuff. Space travel is dangerous & always will be. Understood. Let’s make it as safe as we can & avoid the mistakes that can be avoided.
    Now lets get the blazes on with doing it anyhow!

    Other crueler less reasonable critics, of course, are part of the problem sadly. If they aren’t offering reasonable solutions such mean-spirited, unproductive critics need to be told to STFU and otherwise get ignored.

    I do not agree that we should extend the shuttles for 3 reasons:

    1) safety. We’ve already lost two and each loss was followed by comprehensive safety reviews, the first of which did not prevent the loss of the 2nd. I have little confidence in an aging platform and a NASA bureaucracy run by bean counters who have historically ignored the engineers and scientists.

    See my paragraphs above for that issue.

    Also if the bureacracy is a problem lets reform and reduce the bureacracy NOT the machinery or mission plans! Make the bureacrats listen. Reduce the bean-counters power. Keep up the shuttleflights!

    2) Cost. The Shuttle is expensive and takes money from other programs with potential. Take the shuttle money and spend it on a replacement. Now.

    But there *is* no replacement in sight apart from the private companies – &, frankly, I have little faith in them. I hope I’m wrong but if the private sector groups haven’t done it by now already I can’t see them taking off any time soon.

    Yes we need a replacement for the shuttle but why does this have to be a zero/sum, either/or scenario instead of a both/ and one? Lets fund the shuttle and fund its replacement too – to the tune of as much as is needed.

    The money can come from somewhere else – FSM knows there are enough other areas where money is wasted and could do with being cut or taxes being raised from those who can afford them. (Eg. Anyone else for taxing the churches and religious groups too? ;-) )

    If we can pay whatever it takes for wars & bank bailouts & economic stimuli packages then we can definitely afford the far lesser and far more useful amounts invested to get space travel working.

    3) Incentive. As long as the shuttle flies there is a negative incentive to build its replacement. Retire it now and the pressure will be on to build a new one.

    Yeah, well that worked so well for the Ares-Constellation program didn’t it? :roll:

    The incentive is still there if the shuttles still flying. We know we need a new system – let’s go ahead and build it, ASAP! But lets also not just give up space travel in the meantime and just sit on our backsides and wait until we’ve developed something better before flying again.

    After all, if you’re driving an old car and need to get a new one, you just don’t stop driving your old one until you’ve got a new car right there ready to drive do you? ;-)

  53. Messier Tidy Upper

    @11. Doc Says:

    Wasn’t there some sort of unofficial proposal by some NASA employees a few months back for an alternative to Constellation? I remember it used modified Shuttle equipment and looked plausible (to someone who is not a rocket scientist).

    There have been a few different suggestions made, DIRECT to name one, but did you perhaps mean the NASA’s Plan B which the BA blogged about here complete with videoclip :

    From the NASA’s plan B site you can also find a clip for the DIRECT SDLV launcher plan :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An508xfQyDY&feature=player_embedded

    (& see also http://www.directlauncher.com for more on that idea.)

    and also the shuttle to Jupiter 232 transition plan videoclip here :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6WCHefUJgc&feature=player_embedded

    Hope these links work & that at least 1 of them is the one you were thinking of here! :-)

    - Messier Tidy Upper aka Plutonium being from Pluto

  54. MadScientist

    @Charles Boyer: Yes, I am aware of many things that are done to the shuttles between flights. However, the air frame is aging and being stressed with each flight. Not everything can be simply inspected and patched; at some stage it will be inspect and scrap, but with pressure to keep the birds flying some people may take unnecessary risks and be hesitant to condemn a shuttle. Maintenance also gets progressively more costly for a number of reasons (obsoleted parts, more replacement necessary from age and stress, etc). The motors alone require so much rework I’ve often wondered if it would have been better to assemble and test new sets rather than inspect, test, repair the used motors (but I’m told it really is cheaper to repair). I think the shuttles should be retired rather than run until we lose another. I don’t see a need for machismo when other groups have vehicles which can largely replace the shuttle (except for cargo capacity and the Canadian arm).

  55. Valis

    Hey, what are you people worried about? Leave the space exploration to the Russians, Chinese and Indians. They will do it much better and more efficiently. I don’t know why you’re even having this discussion.

  56. Messier Tidy Upper

    @39. neil Says:

    The extension of the shuttle is based on the need to reach the ISS. Problem is, why do we need to reach the ISS? Exactly what do those folks do up there that merits this sort of expense? I’d like to see a list of the scientific accomplishments of the ISS.

    Maybe you should, oh I dunno, wait til its been completely constructed first or something hey? :roll:

    I’llconfess that no the ISS so far doesn’t exactly float my boat either. I’d prefer a Lunar return or the first human Martian steps or even a mission to Phobos as New Scientist (I think) suggested a while ago.

    But, come on, lets be fair & give the International Space Satation a chance to work after its been completed.

  57. Rocketman

    Phil, Phil, Phil. The Shuttle should indeed be terminated–it’s too expensive, relatively risky, and production lines would have to be reopened to fly more than one mission. Your optimism on the COTS contractors actually performing unmanned resupply this year is crazy. Space X is the closest, and it won’t have a test launch until April. And flying humans by 2013? No way. They’ll still be developing the manufacturing procedures required for a human-rated system. Love the blog though.

  58. Grand Lunar

    I do believe it should be exteneded until at least the first flights of the commercial manned spacecraft.

    I say give it one or two flights per year for the extended years of flight ops.
    NASA ought to be able to afford at least that.

  59. redxavier

    Perhaps two could be kept for emergency situations but otherwise end them.

    As others have said, their absence will force everyone involved to step up with the replacements, a process that has been in stagnation for decades. Also, the very concept of how we get into space needs to be re-evaluated. We need research into new cleaner and cheaper technology to get to the Moon and Mars.

  60. Mike Mullen

    In fairness to NASA they did put forward plans for Shuttle replacements, all of which were either killed at the planning stage or at the first signs of any major technical issues, the X-33 being a good example.
    That however does not let them of the hook for the failure to back commercial carriers doing the routine LEO stuff sooner, like about 20 years sooner, or for the Constellation plan, which always looked like it had been dreamed up after a few beers in some Florida bar by engineers who had just remembered that the deadline for the new launcher design was the next day.
    Retaining the shuttle as a contigency would have made good sense even if Constellation went ahead, especially with the ever receding deadline for the Ares I to become operational. Having failed to maintain that contingency I think it’s too late now and everyone will just have to hope that something good comes out of the political horsetrading that’s likely to happen over the next few months.

  61. Steve Vance

    NASA should be terminated. The US has no business being in space. We have enough problems here on earth, and honestly if we cannot solve our problems on Earth then we do not deserve to be in space. You cannot go outside and play until your bedroom is cleaned up and your chores are done. It’s that simple.

  62. Pi-needles

    @61. Steve Vance Says:

    NASA should be terminated. The US has no business being in space. We have enough problems here on earth, and honestly if we cannot solve our problems on Earth then we do not deserve to be in space.

    Has it occured to you that perhaps it is by going into space that we could potentially find some *solutions* to those problems on Earth? That by gaining knowledge and a new perspective it might be really beneficial for Earth and its people?

    Or that resigning ourselves to staying on Earth and spending the tiny fraction of the budget that otherwise goes on NASA elsewhere may mean causing rather than fixing more problems and has been tried unsuccessfully *before* we had a space program?

    After all, you do know that NASA employs many people and inspire lots of other people and spends their money down here on Earth and are environmentally considerate and put a stack of effort and energy on educating and informing us too don’t you?

    How long have people been trying to end global poverty / hunger / war etc .. without luck again? About since humans first evolved I’d say. Really think getting rid of NASA will solve everything overnight? If only it were that easy. Do you fix an aching belly and crook neck by bashing yourself in the head or chopping off your little toe? Because that makes about as much sense as your suggestion.

    BTW. Do you know that one of the pictures of the full Earth from Apollo 8 was a major factor in sparking the environmental movementand getting people to think about “spaceship Earth” in a very different way to how they had before?

    Besides if the US has no business in space what about the powers that would otherwise dominate it – China, Russia and India to name a few. Do they “deserve” it more and will they be more benevolent? :roll:

    Finally which terminator (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terminator_(franchise) ) do you want to send in to take out NASA – the original Arnie version or the liquid metal TX -1000 guy? ;-)

  63. Charles Boyer

    “We have enough problems here on earth, and honestly if we cannot solve our problems on Earth then we do not deserve to be in space.”

    Yes, ignore the fact that through the decades advancements through the space program have made things better here on Earth.

    Perhaps when we have a Socialist Utopia (TM) and all is well for every soul on our home planet we can venture away from our home planet.

    Riiiiiiiiiight. Keep dreaming that dream.

  64. Charles Boyer

    “Hopefully, we won’t have ourselves too burdened down with the three terrible life-draining chains of excessive risk averseness, excessive political correctness and worst of all funding “shortfalls” to accomplish great & wonderful things again.”

    If only that were true.

    I wonder how far powered flight research would have gotten in today’s climate of litigious ambulance chasers and sensationalistic cable channels that hype every stumble as a massive failure and waste of our time.

    Me, I like to be optimistic about the future and I like to believe that we can solve problems that confront us, given enough time – and given the freedom to do so without underinformed nattering nabobs of negativity presenting artificial obstacles. That’s not just about space exploration, it is also about new forms of energy production, new forms of transportation and flight, new forms of medicine and medical care, etc.

    Unfortunately, the trolls are multiplying and getting elected into position of power, because they can shout “fire!” in theaters without being called down by people with good common sense.

  65. RDRIII

    I see three types of responses to this query;

    First, the hopeless romantic who blathers on about the shuttle’s glory days. Yes, it was a ridiculously advanced piece of technology for the time it was built in. That was over 30 years ago. Do you think NASA uses the most advanced super computers of the 1980′s today for their critical operations? Does NASA build their own super computers? If the US officially starts doling out contracts for cargo ferrying to the LEO, the private industries will flock to get them. The US government is the world’s most reliable customer for on-time payments and long-term security.

    Second, those who either are skeptical of continuing the shuttle or are against it, but criticize the government, NASA, and/or private industry for the conundrum now facing US space flight. First, all of you seem to think there MUST be a shuttle replacement, and it MUST be made by NASA. No, there doesn’t need to be one, and no, if there is one, it surely shouldn’t be built by NASA.

    NASA showed over the last 30 years that the shuttle was a reliable and capable piece of technology, this has been plenty long for private aerospace to look at how to downsize cost and scale for the production of a vehicle with a similar role to the shuttle. The problem is, this was not encouraged or envisioned until the last decade or so (aside from Boeing’s X-plane contributions), and now private industry has to place catch up (which they certainly are).

    NASA should focus on building something completely different, even if the goal of that project is 20-30 years away. Why? Because only NASA has the relative stability as a government agency to have such a long-term project endure without the pressure of producing a profit, which private industry does. That goal would ideally be manned flight to Mars. This will mean silly ideas. It will mean criticism for NASA being “unproductive”. It will mean some wasted money on said silly ideas. But this is how science and engineering research work, there is a very low rate of success.

    Ideally, NASA would continue working in consort with private industry in this venture, because so much of the technology necessary for such a mission is already being developed for different purposes in the private sector (compact fuel cells, life support, long range comms, ground vehicles, etc).

    Finally, third are those who place sole faith in private industry to continue our advances in space. I don’t agree that private industry can hope to get far beyond LEO (where the money is), there’s no incentive and the costs are absurdly high. I do agree private industry is perfectly capable of replacing the shuttle in less than 10 years with a better, cheaper solution, though.

  66. BCL

    The shuttle was a bad concept from the beginning. The idea of “recycling” a spacecraft has the same problems associated with it as recycling trash. It takes much more effort, time and energy to recycle than to build from scratch. The final product is also of lower quality, whether it’s an exploding shuttle, or low quality plastic that nobody wants to buy.

  67. Oli

    @4. Plutonian being from Pluto

    Personally I’d love to see a Sedna lander or at least orbiter, but I think a Uranus orbiter would be the easiest thing to do, considering we already have Cassini.

  68. I believe the shuttle should be extended but only as needed until a viable American replacement is ready. SpaceX showes a vision that in the long run will provide the best choice in terms of cost and reliability. In the interim we should be pursuing a Shuttle derived heavy lift. This make use of the current infrastructure and tooling that is in place. I am refering to the Jupiter Direct concept that should have been the choice from the beginning. The Ares1 and 5 were bad concepts that ignored the advice of those in the know. The Direct approach if we commit very soon can happen in a matter of 2-3 years.

    Bob Sanborn

  69. Michael Ballantine

    Hey, what is this nonsense about a gap. This is about jobs. This is about saving jobs during an economic downturn. If we were having a booming economy this wouldn’t even be a serious discussion. Find a way to economically redeploy the workforce and that will be the compromise.

  70. Mr. mybusiness

    I think new shuttles will be built in the future and I can assume that as is done the new shuttles will be named after the old ones.

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