Bad Astronomy

Should the Shuttle program be extended?

NASA questionOver at Universe Today, Nancy Atkinson has written an interesting piece on whether NASA should consider extending the Shuttle program, which is currently planned to end in September of this year (or thereabouts, depending on delays). After that, NASA will rely heavily on private companies to ferry cargo to orbit, and eventually humans as well.

My thoughts on this are already a matter of record: I don’t think NASA should be in the business of doing anything routine, and several companies are gearing up to take over flights to low-Earth orbit (or LEO as it’s called). SpaceX may be ready as early as late this year for unmanned trips to the space station.

However, no private company has yet made a cargo launch capable of reaching ISS, and there may still be a gap in our ability to get into space. Extending the Shuttle program sounds like a good idea, but I have three concerns: safety, money, and NASA’s ability to extend it.

1) Safety. As far as that goes, I’m no expert, but the people on the blue-ribbon Augustine Commission certainly were. In their report last year to President Obama they said:

However, one option [we examined] does provide for an extension of the Shuttle at a minimum safe flight rate to preserve U.S. capability to launch astronauts into space. If that option is selected, there should be a thorough review of Shuttle recertification and overall Shuttle reliability to ensure that the risk associated with that extension would be acceptable.

In other words, as long as it’s safe, and the schedule isn’t too fast to preclude handling safety concerns, it’s not so bad (and in the UT article, Shuttle Integration Manager Mike Moses agrees). OK, so perhaps that’s an option. However, even so…

2) Money. The Shuttle is very expensive, and there isn’t a lot of money for it in the budget, even if we radically overhaul what the President submitted. I’m not sure I see how we can give money to the private companies so they can develop their tech at the same time we keep the Shuttle running. That would delay the companies’ advancement, which would extend the Shuttle further. That’s a snake eating its own tail.

Still, some folks want to fight to extend the Shuttle in the budget. I had to smile a bit when I read this quote by U.S. Representative Suzanne Kosmas:

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal was not acceptable as is because it would cede the United States’ leadership position in spaceflight in the short term – and possibly the long term.

I disagree with this statement, since within a year we’ll be using U.S. companies to send cargo to the ISS, and humans in three. We already can’t put humans in space all that often with the Shuttle, and once it retires this year (a plan that has been in effect a while now, since the Bush Administration) there will be a long gap before NASA could put people in space anyway. But I also happen to be a tad skeptical about opinions from politicians when their districts include NASA centers. I’m not saying I don’t trust her, but I am saying that the most vocal people I have heard in Congress are from folks who fall into that category (such as Alabama politicians).

However, that looming gap in space capable launches is almost on us. Extending the Shuttle might have traction politically, which means financially. But…

3) Ability. Can NASA even do this? The program has been winding down for some time; even one launch pad has been converted to use by Constellation, which itself may never get past the blueprint stage (I disregard here the Ares 1-X which many consider to be nothing more than a publicity stunt). Lots of workers have been looking for other jobs. And I wonder if the administrative side of NASA would even be able to figure out how to put together another launch or series of launches in time before Space X can start lofting cargo. I’m not clear on how quickly they could turn this around, even if Congress told them “Go” today. And, of course, Congress is not known for being light on its feet either.

So my thinking is that even if it’s safe, and politically expedient, I’m not clear on its worth. It depends on how much it would cost, how possible it is logistically, and if it makes sense to spend a billion or so per launch of the Shuttle when it would be far cheaper to hitch a ride on a Soyuz or three while we wait for industry to catch up.

So I’m not sure how this would work out. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays in Congress, and as it does, I’ll be paying attention.