Image: Endeavour in 2010
NASA file
The shuttle Endeavour is towed through the door of Orbiter Processing Facility-2 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida after its space mission in February 2010. Endeavour is currently due for retirement after its last scheduled flight in April, but there's talk of keeping the orbiter in flight-ready condition in one of the OPF buildings rather than sending it to a museum.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 2/3/2011 9:09:27 AM ET 2011-02-03T14:09:27

NASA is considering a plan to keep the space shuttle Endeavour in flight-like condition after its last scheduled mission, a move that could lead to its transformation into a privatized spaceship rather than a museum piece.

Endeavour’s continued operation through 2017 is part of a proposal that could receive millions of dollars in development funds from the space agency next month.

The proposal — called Commercial Space Transportation Service, or CSTS — would use Endeavour as well as a sister shuttle, Atlantis, to fly two missions a year from 2013 to 2017 at an annual cost of $1.5 billion. United Space Alliance, the contractor that currently manages the shuttle program on NASA’s behalf, has offered the proposal for the second round of funding from the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development initiative, also known as CCDev 2.

NASA could award as much as $200 million in the second round of the CCDev initiative. During the first round, the agency distributed $50 million in stimulus funds to five companies to advance the development of crew-capable replacements for the shuttles.

Some of the recipients of first-round funding — such as the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. — have made proposals for second-round funding as well. The second-round competitors also include SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which are already receiving NASA funds to build spacecraft for transporting cargo to the space station.

United Space Alliance is the only venture proposing to keep the shuttles operating rather than retiring them this year, as currently planned.

When asked about the USA plan, NASA spokesman Michael Curie said in an e-mailed response that the space agency would not "comment at this time on proposals received as part of CCDev 2."

While the CCDev 2 decision is pending, NASA has decided to study the option of keeping Endeavour in a flight-like condition at one of Kennedy Space Center’s three Orbiter Processing Facilities, according to documents obtained by msnbc.com. This study is to examine what personnel and funding would be needed to retain Endeavour instead of giving it up.

For now, NASA is sticking with its plan to send its three space shuttles to museums after their final flights. The schedule calls for Discovery to fly its finale in February, followed by Endeavour in April, and Atlantis in June. After the shuttles' retirement, the space agency would depend on Russia to send American astronauts to the space station, at least until the spacecraft developed under the CCDev program are ready to fly.

Curie told msnbc.com that the Endeavour study was not related to CCDev 2.

"Our baseline plan continues to be to process the shuttle orbiters for retirement and prepare them for display after their last flights," he said Thursday in his e-mail. "As a what-if budget exercise, we are looking at what it would cost if a recipient was not ready to take an orbiter right away, and if we wanted to keep an orbiter in long-term storage for potential engineering analysis."

Some see no rush to retire
Sources familiar with discussions within NASA’s shuttle managing department, the Space Operations Mission Directorate, have told msnbc.com that there’s no rush to retire the shuttles. Even though Discovery’s final mission is only a few weeks away, the directorate asked for a detailed cost analysis for retiring that shuttle only in January. No such requests have yet been made for Atlantis or Endeavour.

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Endeavour is NASA’s newest shuttle. It entered service in 1992 as a replacement for the shuttle Challenger, which was lost along with its crew in an explosion 25 years ago. NASA gave Endeavour its most recent major upgrade in 2005.

The decision to look into retaining Endeavour, and the evaluation of the commercial space shuttle proposal, both come at a time when the future of NASA’s human spaceflight effort is in flux. Congress has not yet approved the NASA appropriations bill for the current fiscal year, and instead the agency is operating on an extension of last year’s budget levels.

Last September, Congress passed legislation that called for NASA to develop a new launch system capable of sending crews into space by 2016. In a preliminary report submitted to Congress last month, NASA said it could not meet the timetable and budget laid out in the legislation.

Weeks before lawmakers took action, the United Space Alliance briefed the space agency on the commercial shuttle proposal. “We discussed the concept with NASA last summer, as part of a larger discussion on how best to support the International Space Station,” USA spokeswoman Tracy Yates said.

Curie confirmed that a group of contractors provided the agency with a briefing in August. The contractors included United Space Alliance and the Boeing Co., one of the partners in the USA joint venture. One outcome of those discussions was that USA submitted its proposal for CCDev 2 funding.

Six-month study
If USA receives funding, the venture would conduct a study called the Commercial Shuttle Operations Architecture, which would last for six months, from April through September. The study would be aimed at fine-tuning USA’s earlier cost estimates for a commercial shuttle operation with a workforce in Texas and Florida. Such an operation would be covered by Federal Aviation Administration rules, would share facilities with other commercial companies to cut down on expenses, and would offer launches to NASA under a fixed-price contract.

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USA’s current estimated price tag of $1.5 billion per year would represent a substantial drop from previous funding levels, which have seen shuttle program costs rise as high as $4 billion per year.

United Space Alliance says its plan would take advantage of shuttle infrastructure and a workforce already in place. Some shuttle production lines would have to be restarted — for example, the operation that builds the shuttle’s external fuel tanks. But USA says the first commercial shuttle flights could take place in 2013. That would beat the 2016 deadline specified in last year’s legislation, as well as the development schedule laid out by SpaceX and USA’s other commercial competitors.

However, it’s not clear whether keeping the shuttles in operation would make the most economic sense for NASA. Henry Hertzfeld, a space policy expert at George Washington University, said using capsule-type vehicles such as the ones proposed by SpaceX and other companies would likely be cheaper than continuing to fly space shuttles.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said a Dragon capsule capable of carrying up to seven passengers could be developed at a cost of $1 billion over three years. Seats on the Dragon could be sold to NASA at a price of $20 million per seat, Musk has said.

Will the plan for commercial shuttles fly? Get the pros and cons from Cosmic Log.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Timeline: Space shuttle timeline

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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