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Keep the shuttles flying? It’ll cost you

A draft NASA report says that extending shuttle operations to 2012 would cost $5 billion, but keeping the fleet flying until 2015 would cost $11 billion and severely impact the agency's exploration plans.
Image: Space shuttle
Attached to a diesel-powered tractor, the space shuttle Endeavour is towed back to its hangar on Dec. 13 for post-mission processing.Jack Pfaller / NASA
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NASA could extend space shuttle operations to 2012 by adding three flights — at a cost of roughly $5 billion — without dramatically affecting the agency's plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, according to a draft internal report on delaying the planned 2010 retirement of the orbiter fleet.

However, extending shuttle operations to 2015, when a replacement system is slated to become available, would cost more than $11 billion and have severe impacts on lunar exploration hardwaredevelopment, according to the draft report, prepared by a team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Both scenarios assume that the additional funding needed to keep the shuttle flying does not come out of the budgets for developing the replacement system, consisting of the Orion crew capsule and its shuttle-derived Ares 1 launcher. Both vehicles are being developed under the Constellation program, which encompasses the hardware NASA needs to transport astronauts to and from the international space station after the shuttle retires, and later to the moon.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin ordered the study in August amid increased concerns over the five-year gap between the shuttle's retirement and the debut of Orion and Ares 1. NASA's plan to rely exclusively on Russian Soyuz vehicles to launch astronauts during that period came under heavy criticism following Russia's August invasion of neighboring Georgia.

In a Dec. 15 interview, Griffin called reliance on Soyuz "unfortunate in the extreme," but said NASA needs the $3 billion it spends annually on shuttle to move ahead with the replacement system.

"Every time I have spoken about [the gap] I've laid it at the feet of budget," Griffin said. He emphasized that without an increase in NASA's overall budget, extending shuttle operations will result in a corresponding delay for Orion-Ares 1.

The shuttle extension study began two months before NASA kicked off another study of other options for closing the five-year gap. In October, a team from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., began assessing whether NASA could accelerate development of Ares 1 and Orion. NASA officials have said Ares 1 and Orion will begin space station missions in March 2015, although they have set an internal deadline of September 2014 and are under pressure to further reduce the gap.

The internal assessments will be compared and finalized before being released sometime in January, Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters during a Dec. 17 teleconference.

"The study we did on acceleration didn't assume the shuttle extension, so we've got to get to a resolution on all of that," said Cooke, who declined to discuss details of a Dec. 15 briefing on the acceleration study. "We need to understand that all together."

Weighing cost and added risk
The shuttle draft report, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, evaluates the implications of the two- and five-year extension scenarios for their costs, work force implications and impacts on the Constellation program.

According to the study, both options increase the risk of losing a crew or vehicle: The two-year extension increases the cumulative risk from a 1-in-8 probability to 1 in 6; extending operations through 2015 increases the risk to 1 in 4. The risk of losing an orbiter or crew on any given mission is 1 in 77, the report said.

A decision on whether to pursue either extension option is needed by May 2009 to reverse plans to draw down shuttle operations, the draft report said.

A two-year shuttle extension offers limited benefits but does not carry significant technical risk. It does not eliminate the gap or solve work-force retention issues, but would benefit the space station and provide an opportunity to use the shuttle to test Constellation hardware. Examples include Orion's thermal protection system and docking system, the draft report said.

Contract extensions of up to 24 months would be required for hardware such as the space shuttle onboard computer, robotics, camera system, reusable solid rocket motor, main engines and external tanks.

While there would be no need to produce new shuttle external tanks under the 2012 option, extending related activities at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans could delay modifications of the facility needed to begin producing the Ares 1 upper stage. That, in turn, could delay the start of Ares 1 upper stage production by 12 months, the draft report said, adding that NASA is developing mitigation plans.

How many flights?
The launch manifest under the first option — not counting the November launch of space shuttle Endeavour — would include 12 flights during the next four years: four in 2009, four in 2010, three in 2011 and one in 2012. Space shuttle Discovery would make its final flight in August 2010 and Atlantis in February 2011.

The 22-launch manifest under the five-year extension option features four missions in 2009 and three in each of the following six years. Atlantis would be retired after 2010 and available to provide spares to Discovery and Endeavour.

While preserving NASA's ability to fly astronauts to the space station until Ares 1 and Orion come on line — albeit at a cost of $11.4 billion — the five-year shuttle extension would severely impact various other elements of the Constellation, including the heavy-lift Ares 5 cargo launcher.

Ares 1 and Ares 5 will lift off from a pair of launch pads currently used by the shuttle. Modifications to Pad A to accommodate the Ares 5 are scheduled to begin in 2012, but a five-year extension of shuttle operations would delay that by two to three years unless NASA can find a way to use Pad B both for shuttle missions and Ares 1 test flights, the report said. The five-year option also likely would require NASA to move Ares upper stage manufacturing operations to another facility at Michoud, the report said. The change could delay Ares 5 by 18 to 25 months.

More unanswered questions
Other issues NASA would have to resolve to keep the shuttle flying five more years include:

  • A 15-month to 16-month development delay on the Ares J-2X upper stage engine, unless NASA can modify its A1 test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to accommodate testing of both that engine and the space shuttle main engine.
  • The availability of North American Rayon, a specialty material used to manufacture shuttle and Ares solid-rocket motor nozzles, is limited, which means the capacity to produce Ares vehicles would be drastically reduced.
  • Space shuttle solid rocket booster production would require $23 million in 2009 for skills retention, and the insulating material for the motor would require a new indemnification agreement or qualification of a replacement material, as production is scheduled to end in 2010.
  • Orion's space station rendezvous and docking system would have to be altered to allow it to dock at a different location so the shuttle can continue to use its primary docking port.
  • NASA would have to recertify vendors soon to enable extended operations.

The 2015 option assumes that the space shuttle will cease operations as soon as a replacement becomes available, be it Orion-Ares 1 or a commercially developed alternative.