Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't plan shuttle going-away party in 2010

NASA aims to launch the last space shuttle mission about a year from now.

The official target on the agency's launch calendar is Sept. 16, 2010. Last week, NASA named a crew for the mission. Steve Lindsey, head of the astronaut office, will leave that job to go back into training as commander of the historic voyage.

The naming of that crew jarred some folks. Reading the launch date reminded people it's not that far off. The shuttle program is nearing its end, barring an 11th-hour reprieve from the White House.

Date uncertain

That said, I wouldn't start making big plans around that September 2010 date. The White House, Congress and every independent observer are accepting the likelihood that the space shuttle program won't fly out by next fall. These last six flights are likely to take another half a year or so.

The budget hawks in Washington already are telling NASA not to rush flights, saying they'll provide funding into 2011 if necessary.

NASA, to its credit, will try to stay on schedule. They want to fly out those missions as quickly as they can because they need to shift the $4 billion a year spent operating the space shuttles to the development of replacement rockets and spaceships.

To be sure, it's possible the White House will extend the shuttle program to prevent a looming gap in the United States' ability to fly people in space, to stave off the economic hit to shuttle-dependent communities like ours, and to head off a potential crisis in operating the International Space Station. As more time passes, however, that seems like a long-shot politically.

Six missions remain and the chance NASA can fly all six over the next 12 months is slim. The next flight blasts off no sooner than mid-November. Since Columbia, NASA's been flying shuttles at a rate of about three to four missions every 12 months.

The post-Columbia limitations of tightened safety rules, aging vehicles and a smaller three-orbiter fleet make it tough for the crack launch team at Kennedy Space Center to do much better than that.

A note: there was one 12-month stretch from June 2007 to May 2008 when six shuttles did blast off from KSC. That kind of flight rate requires an uncanny combination of perfect execution by tens of thousands of people across the country and a hefty dose of good luck.

Launch rate

The long-term flight rate shows that it takes roughly 15-16 months to get six space shuttle missions off the ground in the post-Columbia era, once you factor in weather, technical glitches and other unpredictable hurdles. Another bout with freaky Florida weather or temperamental fuel instrumentation is never out of the question.

Safety dictates these last missions not be run in a race against the clock. That's why Washington has promised the money to fly the shuttles into 2011.

My best guess: we'll all be part of a big celebration of the space shuttle program and be relishing that last launch in February of 2011 at the earliest. Maybe it won't happen until around April -- the 30th anniversary of the shuttle's maiden voyage in 1981. My money's on sometime that summer.


Anonymous said...

While I believe the STS should be shut down ASAP (even now), it would be best to not add any more missions. If the White House and NASA can agree to end the program with STS-133, then OK. The flight gap before Orion won't kill us, either.

Conor said...

NASA is on course for five launches this year, though. The first time since Columbia, despite several weeks delay due to the leaking hydrogen flange.
September next year seems unlikely, but I'd be a bit surprised if the final flight slips into 2011.

Anonymous said...

Great..more life support for our supposedly intelligent space workers who have known for more than 6 years that their program was ending and the time had come to move on to other careers.

Spaceman said...

It's cheaper to keep her "Shuttle". I don't think Congress wants to spend the extra 3 billon dollers needed to have a new space program during these hard economic times. I would not be suprised if they keep the Shuttle for another four years instead of investing in our future. That is the way our goverment works....

Anonymous said...

You all better hope "O" has "a vision"...or else you can start to put your house up for sale at $25.

stevepem said...

The public is ready for the shuttle to retire regardless of what we think about it. When the Hubble servicing mission was cancelled there was an immediate public outcry and a grassroots campaign to save it, even schoolchildren were writing in to save the Hubble. Meanwhile not a peep from the general public about the shuttle retirement.

Anonymous said...

When pushing the flights into 2011 is discussed, they mean fiscal year 2011 which could be calendar year 2010.

Anonymous said...

The Hubble never killed anyone.

Anonymous said...

I think some people have short memories... Obama inherited the space programme's shortcomings from Bush. Bush was no NASA supporter - he didn't even make a single Presidential call to a shuttle or ISS crew! His choice of Sean O'Keefe as administrator was as poor as the decision not to service Hubble before the infamous U-turn. Then he nominated Mike Griffin who was uncompromising about Ares as the shuttle retirement date of 2010. And now look where things are? At least Obama has allowed for a shuttle extension into 2011. He set-up the Augustine panel which exposed how wanting the NASA budget has been since Bush announced Constellation. So let's stop the Obama-bashing till he sets a new course for NASA.

Anonymous said...

They have a saying that "Most dream to work the dream out at KSC". The most are the people on the tour busses or people around the USA that would love to have the opportunity to work at KSC. The problem is most workers, not all, have lost that spark, the desire, the motivation, the creativity, the integrity, the accountability, .... We get lost in our ways and find ourselves collecting a pay check and not living the dream any longer. What's wrong with this? KSC today could survive with half the workforce if the half that remained put in an honest work day and actually cared about the task at hand. It doesn’t matter what line of work from grounds to scientist. A lot of eyes watch us from tour busses, VIP's, etc. First impressions and last leaving center impale an image to these people of who WE are out there!!! You wonder why WE can't launch another rocket or ? to replace the shuttle program. Sad, very sad. We did it in the '60s on less than 8 megabites of computer memory and now we can't do it with.... Never mind, I'm sure there are people out at KSC and other NASA Centers who really care and want to share their thoughts or work hard towards an idea that just might work,but are held down by others who just don't want to take the time to listen or have come to the reality of showing the minimum...go home.

Anonymous said...

This is from the same person who posted the anonymous above, because this hits hard to 70-85% of all who have read this. It may be to late or maybe not, but take the chance and stand up for youself and express what you feel and most importantly your ideas. Believe me someone, somewhere will listen if you make enough noise. Shouldn't be that way, but if that's what it takes to get the attention needed to get the laim and lazy to listen why not. NASA needs to wake up, and prove to AMERICA they can do it!!!