Monday, September 21, 2009

Station's future may depend on shuttle

The gap between the retirement of the shuttles and the first flights of the replacement system was a numbskull idea from the start.

The major powers of the world pooled $100 billion to build a top-notch science laboratory in space -- a sprawling complex designed from the beginning to be constructed and operated using NASA's versatile orbiters.

Finally, the outpost is staffed with enough crew members to do real science. Astronauts from countries other than the U.S. and Russia are getting to work in their new labs. By 2011, NASA astronauts will finish building the International Space Station. Then, the U.S. will retire the shuttles and effectively place the new space station in a perpetual crisis-management mode.

In 2004, when President George W. Bush laid out his space plans, he was told that NASA would be ready to fly astronauts to the station aboard a replacement ship by 2012. The U.S. could stock the outpost with supplies and spare parts on the last shuttle missions and rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to take crews back and forth. Automated Russian, European and Japanese cargo tugs would deliver supplies and haul away garbage.

Just two years after the shuttles are to be retired, NASA's new crew exploration vehicle, Orion, would start bringing people and cargo to the station. But even that plan was flawed because Orion was designed for a different purpose (long space journeys) and not to service a space station. Like every other vehicle available, it would never be able to do one critical thing the shuttle can: take big stuff to the ISS.

The broader problem: NASA's new rockets and spaceships never stood a chance of flying by 2012. The schedule was overly ambitious, and the promised funding never materialized. The shuttle-replacement project was behind before it started, and the gap was growing before Congress even approved the plan.

The first-flight target for the new system was delayed to 2014, then 2015. Most outside reviews say it won't be ready until 2018, if no new problems crop up.

When President Barack Obama's space committee members told him that flying the shuttles longer is the only way to shorten the gap, they didn't go far enough. They also should have said that flying the shuttles longer is the only way to ensure the viable operation of the space station until 2020.

Without shuttle visits -- even one per year would help -- the station always will be at risk of abandonment if there's a hiccup in international supply runs. Russian Progress ships are reliable but can't carry big replacement parts if a critical ISS system fails. Tugs offered by Europe and Japan have flown once so far and face funding struggles. The hope for a private U.S. company to provide cargo service to the station is just hope, for now. Nothing on the drawing board can fulfill the need the station program always planned to be met by regular visits from the shuttles.

The world built the station and ought to make sure that taxpayers get their money's worth, even if that means flying the shuttles longer. If there's no money to do it all, then NASA will have to do what the rest of us are doing in this economy and delay gratification on the bigger items on the wish list.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article on the need for the shuttle.

To our politicians, P..L..A..N...A..H..E..a....

When President Barack Obama's space committee members told him that flying the shuttles longer is the only way to shorten the gap, they didn't go far enough. They also should have said that flying the shuttles longer is the only way to ensure the viable operation of the space station until 2020.

loutefree said...

I agree America should be able to keep the space station and NASA goals, except Bush took taxes meant to support our national space interest and gave it to his wealthy friends in a tax cut to the wealthy. I don't see any right wingers willing to put tax rates back to what they were to save the space station or America. Most want their cake an to eat it too. Shame on Tea bag protesters wanting future generations to pay their tax burden.

Anonymous said...

The ISS doesn't need any more "big stuff" to be brought up. The end of the shuttle program corresponds with the heavy hauling that needs to be done.

Abandoning the ISS is fine with me. It has done nothing for science, and certainly done nothing to help us prepare for long-distance space travel. If you want to do that, leave the ISS occupants up there for 18 months without resupply, and add a 40-minute delay to the radio communications to simulate a trip to Mars.

The only contribution of the ISS is learning how to cooperate with international partners on a really big project, given the limitations of space travel. Otherwise, who can state an actual scientific contribution of the ISS?

John Kelly said...

As long as nothing breaks down, you're right. There's nothing big on the manifest. The track record to date indicates that unexpected repair and refurbish jobs are likely, after shuttle is no longer available. Gyroscopes and other critical components or spare parts for components are too big to carry up on anything but shuttle.

Anonymous said...

wow - loutefree, you lack of understanding is quite amusing. Did you get your talking points from MSNBC and their shallow talking heads. Tax cuts boost the economy and produce higher tax income because more spending occurs and more people are working - hence, paying taxes. Do some research and learn the truth. Moreover, assuming you have a job, add up your total tax burden; federal income tax, real estate, gasoline (per gallon), FCC tax (for cable, cell, home phone, etc...), various fees for dog tags, etc... licenses for autos, and other items - it comes to about 60% of your income... and you suggest I should pay more? I already work from January 1 until roughly July 16 until my tax burden is fulfilled - then I get to earn money from my family. And worse yet, 85% of my tax dollars go to support government handout programs, many of which spend my money in ways I do not approve.

Anonymous said...

My advice, get the people off before the supply ship goes away.

Anonymous said...

Keeping the shuttles for re-supply would be a smart move ,the defense budget could also used to fund the Shuttles if needed as a National Resource .
I think it was England used to kill all their good ideas, no wonder the Empire crumbled ,I guess we just took that over .
There is little doubt the interest of Washington lies (good word to use!) elsewhere .

jaxdodger said...

Get real folks! The Japanese just sent up five tons of supplies on an unmanned craft. The future is unmanned spacecraft. A much smaller and more efficient means of moving personnel is needed but we don't need the shuttle. Private industry and other countries are using modern technology to explore space and supply the space station and it is time we did the same thing. NASA is an outdated agency with outdated ideas and outdated technology and especially outdated leaders with outdated policies. Move ahead into thie next generation and stop mourning the old three try launches. Put the shuttle to bed!

CharlieA said...

The rich get to have their cake, by eating ours!
Keep one Shuttle - fly it maybe 3 times per year. How, is up to Barack, Charlie & The Hill Gang.

Anonymous said...

I put some comments on this story this morning, but they seem to have disappeared as the story "migrated" to the Flame Trench. Suggestion: When you move the story, copy over the existing comments. Anyway, jaxdodger said many of the things I said. I even put up facts, figures and numbers. I'm not sure if John Kelly answered back specifically which parts are too big for the Japanese freighter, although he did mention the gyroscopes somewhere. So I will reiterate my example: the gyroscope manufacturer has probably completed his production run and has dismantled the production line. Now suddenly, five years from now, a gyroscope fails. The spare already up there gets put on. Do you make another spare then? Can you make another spare then? Is the supplier even in business? How long to make this part considering you are reactivating a cold line? You want to keep the shuttle around for ten years at $1-2B a year for one launch, maybe two, when you don't even know if you can get a spare or if you'll need one?

To properly assess this, we need a complete list of all parts that don't fit anywhere but on the shuttle and the NASA odds of needing a replacement part between now and 2020. Now bounce that against the NASA odds of a shuttle catastrophe if you try and keep launching shuttles for ten extra years.

My educated guess based on 30 years in Aerospace is you do as jaxdodger says and put the shuttle to bed.

Good night already.


Anonymous said...


You mentioned Control Moment Gyroscopes as being too big earlier for anything other than Shuttle. Orion will have an unpressurized volume in its service module that is being sized specifically for CMGs (and will accommodate a variety of other payloads too).

Japan's HTV can also carry unpressurized payloads. Larger items such as complete modules could be launched on an EELV just as Russia has been doing for decades.

Anonymous said...

Two to four shuttle flights per year does not over extend the shuttle system. It is needed to support the station and is the only system made to deliver huge cargo items. For those who think 5 tons is a big feat, the shuttle can deliver up to 60 tons a heck of a lot cheaper than the tiny 5 ton craft. Only narrow minded objectivity and lack of a far sighted vision for space exploration limit the use of the shuttle as the interim delivery system required until newer craft are ready to take over. NASA like it or not are the experts and beliving otherwise is pure fiction. Provide the funding and you'll see!

Anonymous said...

Keep the shuttle as an emergency backup.But only if the rest of the ISS partners are willing to share the cost with us in full!

Anonymous said...

The more I read this article, the more I find it misleading. Nobody ever said that keeping the ISS operable until 2020 required the shuttle. Mr. Augustine and his committee seemed pretty adamant that the ISS be kept in service. To that, I agree. Then, there was one option that had the shuttle flying until 2015 (Boo! Hiss!). Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't recall the committee saying they were mutually bound. Either way, never in the Augustine report was it suggested that the shuttle keep launching until 2020.

Again I point out that the author here has raised the ugly spectre of this huge part that must be spared and rushed to the ISS. There are no facts offered to back up this conjecture or if the part would even be available; instead we are told that "repair and refurbishment is likely." Those of us in the business (I have 30+ years) understand that there's a fundamental difference (that was me apeing Joe Biden) between repair and refurbishment on one hand and scrap and replace on the other. Ladies and gentlemen, I offer the following: 1) the ISS has been in operation for like 6-8 years. Has any part yet failed to where it had to be scrapped and replaced by a spare that only fits on the shuttle? 2) Normal repair and refurbishment can be done by the six (count 'em, six) full-time residents of the Station. 3) More likely than total meltdown of a single, large part is something stops working and they perform failure analysis and they remove and replace a SUBASSEMBLY. Yes, in the real world, this is how it usually works.

Example: Does the US Navy ever swap out an entire Aegis system from a guided destroyer? Not bloody likely. The whole system never fails to where it must be scrapped unless you get some kind of destruction.

Now, I don't know how big these gyroscopes are and whether or not they fit in the Japanese freighter. I also haven't been offered NASA's assessment on the probability of total failure. Maybe a little more hard data and a little less pandering to the local crowd might convince me.

Until then, I remain,

Respectfully, Microwave

CLR4theApproach said...

For those still banging the drum of Private space craft servcing the ISS.. HA!.. You really do show your ignorance of the difficulties associated with space flight..

The R&D, the test and developement of a new vehicle.. trusting your loved one (humans) in that "NEW" vehicle.. it isn't like developing a new car to go ride in.. Even new aircraft take year to develope... Get Real folks.. Private Commerical is not going to be successful enough to support "LARGE" space missions.. Yea, so will have the money to go for a 90 minute Zero-G flight.. wow, that helps science huh..

Space flight of this magnitude is only affordable by a national budget and agenda.. NASA could do things better.. but doing so would be much easier with the proper funding and a real National GOAL...

Anonymous said...

Florida is no longer a good place for this...there are too many times when the Schuttle can't take off or land here...too much extra cost !!! Thats one of the reasons things will be shut down here !!! Savings the Tax payers a lot of money !!!

Anonymous said...

"Nothing on the drawing board can fulfill the need the station program always planned to be met by regular visits from the shuttles."

Here again, this statement from the author, presented as fact, contradicts what I've always understood, which is that Congress approved (by one vote if I remember) to fund the shuttle program up through ISS CONSTRUCTION.

I don't recall ever having heard that the shuttle would be visiting the ISS "regularly" ("Hey guys! We're baaaaack!" "Yo, dudes, where you been?") or even "occasionally."

Look, I will accept "literary license" from, say, Ernest Hemingway. But first we have the author inventing specific failures that he's sure will occur and now we have him rewritting NASA history before it's happened.'s time for a transfer. As they say in the biz, you've "Gone native."


Anonymous said...

Nice article. Funny how no matter how often big projects miss deadlines, people always count on the next big project to meet its deadlines.

davrin said...

As it has been suggested several times, I believe
that the space shuttle should be extended for as
long as possible. The space shuttle is a proven,
man rated spacecraft that is good at what it does,
i.e. bring people into LEO and back down again
and build thing in LEO. Yes it does cost a lot,
but most of these costs is due to the armies of
people required to maintain and nurse the space
shuttle. A modernised process can be implemented
to cut the space shuttle cost down to a fraction
of what it costs today. I do not think that we
will see another man rated, spacecraft capable
of hauling about 20tons of cargo plus 7
astronauts with a robotic construction crane,
anytime soon. Once the shuttle goes, these
capabilities wont be replaced again. So I say
to keep the space shuttle in place, and use what
has been already invested in other programs to
improve the performance of space shuttle
(Ares 5 - segment booster), and keep the cost
down (the X33 - metallic tiles). Once the life
of the space shuttle has been extended, NASA
can use the funds allocated to a shuttle
replacement to build spaceships optimised
for deep space travel and vacuum travel. These
new breed of deep space spaceships are the
ones that will eventually meet all the goals
that has been setup by President Bush (return
to the Moon), by the Mars enthusiastic crowd
(manned mission to Mars), and the Augustine
Panel (mission to Asteroids). And guess what,
these new spaceships can actually be built
in space by the space shuttle with its
proven capabilities of building large space
infrastructure (ISS). These new deep space
spaceships do not need to have the weight
penalty of re-entry vehicles as they will
always remain in space, be parked near the
ISS or at the Lagrange points and be reused
to travel between several points in the Solar
System after re-fuelling

Anonymous said...

"A modernised process can be implemented
to cut the space shuttle cost down to a fraction
of what it costs today."

As a veteran of 30 years in Aerospace cost management - if it could be done, it already would have been done.

You have offered neither evidence nor hypothetical as to how it will be done.

My suggestion to you: Go and tell NASA how to do this so the upcoming shuttle launch on Nov 12th goes off on time and costs far less than projected.

It's funny but what you're suggesting actually flies in the face of what all the shuttle huggers demand - that the "critical" jobs be preserved.

For, you see, the only way to make the shuttle less costly (since the supplier costs are in the books for the remaining six flights) is to drastically reduce labor costs, and thereby cut jobs. Gee...we need to preserve these critical we'll keep flying the shuttle...and make it make sense by having it cost way less...magically...and keep all the jobs...

Excuse me, but I have clearance, and can't imbibe on the bong.

128 down and 6 to go. No, there aren't any magic elixirs that will make the last six cost way less, nor make any you'd care to add cost way less. It is what it is, and it (the shuttle) is a cantankerous and unwieldy beast. It does what it does very well, when a million different conditions are all "perfect" and if you don't mind spending a fortune.

A fraction of what it costs today? Well, technically, 99/100ths of a billion IS a fraction......


Anonymous said...

Almost thirty years of shuttle ops have proven one thing: LEO or bust. Since there is NO will to go beyond, keep the shuttles flying till the end of the space station's life in 2020. Or until a third disaster. Now that might sound cynical, but it's no more heartless than sending NATO soldiers to die in pointless wars. Remember, the establishment in Washington has no interest in sending astronauts to Mars when they can make a profit elsewhere.

Anonymous said...


You really don't give the private space guys enough credit, and I think you are going to end up eating your hat.

Just look at all that SpaceX has accomplished since their founding in 2002. They have developed and successfully flown two entirely new engines. That's no small feat. They have also successfully orbited their first customer payload on one of the two launch vehicles they have developed. They have also developed a spacecraft, and will be flying their first test vehicle at the end of this year. Yes, they had some failures, but so has every other vehicle. Also, you can definitely see that they learned from their failures each time, as each flight progressed further in its launch phase than the previous, until finally, they started achieving orbit. I have no doubt that Dragon will be operational in LEO before Orion, and at a much much lower cost with similar reliability. And that's fine. Private companies like SpaceX should be servicing LEO and ISS. Let NASA focus on sending Orion beyond LEO, since the commercial guys are not quite ready for exploration beyond LEO, and it's NASA's job to pave the way for private industry.

Also, you shouldn't think that the people of SpaceX are new to this business. Elon Musk hand picked the best and brightest from the aerospace industry to lead his projects, while also infusing a right balance of "new blood" into the mix.

"Private" is also not just the newcomers like SpaceX. Orbital Sciences will also be performing commercial resupply with their Cygnus spacecraft. Orbital has been in this business for decades with great success. It was also revealed today that Boeing has submitted a proposal for NASA Commercial Crew Transportation. Boeing is certainly not a new kid on the block.

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