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Will space shuttles have an afterlife?

The shuttle Discovery is lit up just after this week's arrival at the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Discovery is slated for retirement after its next launch, but there's talk that the other two shuttles in NASA's fleet could be kept for commercial purposes.

Is there really a chance that at least a couple of space shuttles will stay on as commercial spaceships rather than going to museums this year? That's what United Space Alliance, the venture that currently takes care of the shuttle fleet for NASA, is suggesting in its proposal for resupplying the International Space Station in the, ahem, "post-shuttle era."

The reactions to our story about the proposal run the gamut from "it's a dream come true" to "it's a pipe dream." It's not a totally loony idea — in fact, retired senator-astronaut John Glenn threw his support behind the idea months ago, and made his pitch for keeping the shuttles flying to President Barack Obama during a White House meeting.

"Why terminate a perfectly good system that has been made more safe and reliable through its many years of development?" Glenn asked.

But when you consider all the concerns that have been raised about the risks and costs associated with the space shuttle, along with the fact that the shuttle infrastructure is already being literally dismantled, does the plan really make sense?


The forum at NASASpaceflight.com, which is frequented by a fair number of space agency insiders, is generally bullish about the idea: One commenter observed, "Technically, the orbiters are in great shape.  There are no concerns there.  Politics will likely dictate and outweigh the logic process on if this is required or not. Two flights a year is very doable. ..."

On the other hand, NASA Watch's Keith Cowing, who is plugged into the talk within the space agency as well, is bearish: " NASA is not 'considering' or 'weighing' anything other than whether or not they want to pay someone to do a study that challenges a decision the agency has already committed to."

When the idea of keeping the shuttles flying was raised to Wayne Hale, who retired from NASA last year after managing the space shuttle program, it was quickly shot down.

"What if United Space Alliance were to buy the three shuttles?" a commenter asked Hale.

"This is nonsense," Hale replied. "United Space Alliance would need about $3 billion to operate the shuttle fleet for six flights a year. You do the math. It's not feasible."

Now USA is proposing doing two flights a year, using Endeavour and Atlantis, for $1.5 billion starting in 2013. That may be more feasible, and it may be an attractive proposition for job-conscious members of Congress. But the plan still may turn out to be too costly, risky or wrong-headed. Here's how the pros and cons line up:

Pros:

  • The system has already been flying for 30 years, so we know it works.
  • The shuttle has more cargo capacity than anything on the drawing boards. So at the same time that NASA is flying crew, it could deliver 25 tons of supplies as well.
  • The plan bridges the gap until next-gen spaceships are built and fully tested.
  • It keeps the shuttle workforce employed, eases transition to post-shuttle age.
  • It reduces dependence on the Russians for human spaceflight in the near term.
  • It gives NASA a chance to consider future shuttle-derived heavy-lift space vehicles.

Cons:

  • How would transfer of shuttles to private sector work? Should USA pay?
  • Shuttles are seen as having a 1-in-100 risk of loss of crew, which would be unacceptable under NASA's proposed safety standards for future flights.
  • Some of the replacement parts for the shuttles are already becoming difficult to procure (via eBay?). More external fuel tank
  • Next-gen spaceships for carrying astronauts are likely to be cheaper to build and operate, and may be ready as soon as 2014. Between now and then, it may make more sense to rely on the Russians.
  • Shuttle workforce is already starting to disperse due to the expected end of program.
  • Wouldn't it be preferable to fund new technologies rather than keeping 30-year-old technology going?

Maybe you have more pros and cons to offer. Or maybe you just have some thoughts about the approach of the post-shuttle age, or the prospect for the commercial-shuttle age. However you see it, feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

I'll be out of the office for a few days, but my colleague John Roach will keep the Cosmic Log fires burning while I'm gone.