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.
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.
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.
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