Archive for February, 2011

The USA Plan: Fly the Shuttle Until 2017

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Last week, a news release detailed that United Space Alliance had proposed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program that they maintain the three remaining shuttles to fly two flights a year from 2013 until 2017 at a cost of $1.5 billion dollars per year.  That’s a very interesting idea, especially if they really can contain their costs to that amount.  It certainly does solve NASA’s immediate, unaddressed, and hidden problem of how to support ISS with heavy lift capability until the end of its life in 2020. Dragon X, for all its progress and its hype, will not be able to supply ISS with anything more than can be pushed through its hatch, and that story applies to every ISS delivery vehicle in or planned for the ISS supply inventory.

Additionally, in what seems to be a continuation of NASA’s “can’t do” spirit, the agency has steadfastly maintained it cannot produce any kind of a heavy lift vehicle before 2020, some nine years from now.  The qualifier is, of course, that it can’t do so within the current budget, and that is a problem for mainly Congress to solve, though NASA needs to do everything it can to resolve it itself.  But, if it can’t, then flying the shuttle out to 2017 does solve most of its logistical support problems, as well as leaving the door open to other endeavors.  What NASA has to decide is whether that 1.5 billion dollars is better spent on new vehicle development than on ensuring we get the most value out of the investment in ISS and the shuttle we have already made.  Considering the agency’s continuing malaise when it comes to bringing a new vehicle to the forefront, I am not sure it is.

I have to admit, though, I am skeptical that USA can manage the infrastructure required to continue shuttle flights at such a low cost figure.  Not only will some kind of maintenance facilities have to be maintained, but both operational, safety.  and training facilities and personnel will all have to be retained.  While I would personally think that’s a “plus” for the country, many people will not.  Certainly, I would expect a lot of resistance from the headquarters crowd that pushed the original Obama agenda down the road, even though it has no chance of passing on its own.  Then, again, adopting this approach might actually let them further their agenda while keeping the political opponents at bay; it all depends on how well USA can actually manage the costs.  But this program would be something I’d like to see; by 2017, you gotta hope we’d have a much better handle on a longer term direction for the agency and the country’s manned space program.  By then, there might actually be something tangible for the program to reach for.  You gotta hope; you gotta hope!