Wednesday, June 01, 2011

NASA's Space Shuttle Program Winds Down; What is likely to replace our space fleet?

Next-to-last space shuttle flight lands on Earth
[...] Launch managers marveled Wednesday over how good Endeavour still looks.

"It looks like it's ready to go do another mission," Kelly noted. He said he'd fly the space shuttle every couple months if he could — heck, every week if possible. "But it's 30 years old ... and we've got to grow and adapt and build new things."

Atlantis will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a tourist stop, following one last supply run to the space station. Liftoff is set for July 8.

Discovery, the fleet leader, returned from its final voyage in March. Its next stop is a Smithsonian Institution hangar outside Washington.

Moving Atlantis to the launch pad as Endeavour landed helped temper the sadness so many are feeling with one mission remaining, officials said. Thousands of more layoffs loom once the shuttle program ends.

"It's been a heck of a month in the last four hours," observed launch manager Mike Moses, "and I think we've used up our overtime budget for the entire month."

NASA is leaving the Earth-to-orbit business behind to focus on expeditions to asteroids and Mars. Private companies hope to pick up the slack for cargo and crew hauls to the space station. But it will be a while following Atlantis' upcoming flight — at least three years by one business' estimate, five to seven years by Kelly's — before astronauts ride on American rockets again.

Until then, Americans will continue hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz capsules at the cost of tens of millions of dollars a seat.

"We're in the process of transition now, and it's going to be awkward," Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim said. "But we'll get to the other side and we'll have new vehicles.

"I really do have to say, though, it's going to be really hard to beat a vehicle that is so beautiful and majestic as that one is," he said as Atlantis rolled to the pad behind him. "I mean, how can you beat that? An airplane sitting on the side of a rocket. It's absolutely stunning."

I read elsewhere, that Endeavor was designed to fly a total of 100 missions. Retiring it at 25 seems premature, and in many ways, a waste of money. So why are they retiring it?

1. Safety issues. Since the Challenger and Columbia deaths, there have been a lot of safety concerns about continuing to use the shuttles. Dangers inherent in the design, that are not easily managed.

2. The cost of launching, and maintenance. The vehicle's themselves may be paid for, but their continued maintenance, and the cost of launching them safely, is quite expensive.

NASA was working on a new transport vehicle, the Orion Spacecraft, but that got scrapped by Obama when he scrubbed the Constellation Program.

Recently there has been talk of restoring the part of the Constellation Program that would finish building the Orion, so the US would at least have a spacecraft. There is some sense in that, since billions have already been spent on it. But it will be years before it's ready.

Obama has suggested that the private sector should step in to fill the transport gap. I suspect he says that because he's not that interested in the space program, and wants their budget money for entitlement spending.

Money spend on NASA's budget was only a fraction of what's spent on entitlements; see this graph. Entitlement spending, and even the interest on our debt, is way, WAY more than NASA's budget. And at least the NASA spending created jobs, and spin-off technologies that could be used in the private sector. We at least got something back for our money.

Still, I agree with the President that the private sector should be more involved in space transportation, and some good may come out of Obama's decision. Some private companies are already striving to fill the gap, and my favorite, Spacex, has already come quite far in doing so. Competition in the free market often creates better, and more cost-effective, alternatives. So perhaps it will ultimately benefit The Future of American Manned Space Flight.

We shall see.

The "Dragon" spacecraft, by Spacex


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