Saturday, February 5, 2011

USA Bids to Commercialize Shuttle

It ain't over 'til it's over. — Yogi Berra

Florida Today reports that United Space Alliance has submitted a proposal to extend the Space Shuttle program through NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

Starting as soon as 2013, after construction of a new external tank, the lead operator of NASA's shuttle fleet proposes to fly twice a year with Atlantis and Endeavour at a cost of less than $1.5 billion a year.

If supported, the plan would reduce an anticipated gap of at least four years between launch of the last shuttle mission this year and availability of new privately run crew taxis, a period during which astronauts will depend on Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

"We thought this was a good option to be put on the table to be evaluated with all the other commercial options, since it's a vehicle that has really proven itself," said Mark Nappi, head of Houston-based USA's Florida operations. "It is safe. We have a lot of history, we understand how to operate it."

"It is safe"?!

Fourteen astronauts have died on Shuttle. Seven died when STS-51L Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986. Seven more died when STS-107 Columbia was destroyed during re-entry due to a hole in its left wing caused by falling foam impact during launch.

STS-133 Discovery has been delayed for four months, first by a vapor leak, then by a structural weakness in part of the external tank that could have repeated the falling foam problem. After more than 130 launches, the tank still poses a risk to the crew.

I wrote last March about why President Bush cancelled Shuttle in January 2004. The decision was made in the wake of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report which described Shuttle as "a complex and risky system" with an inherent design flaw — the crew vehicle mounted on the side instead of on top of the rocket, a design used by every other crewed mission in human space flight history.

A report last March estimated that it would take two to three years before a new external tank could be built. In the meantime, about $2.5 billion per year would be spent to keep the Shuttle employees on staff.

After the successful launch in December of the Falcon 9 with a Dragon spacecraft that twice orbited the Earth, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk estimated his company could have crewed flights operational by 2013. Other companies have entered the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) competition, such as the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.

It seems a colossal waste of time and money trying to extend a fundamentally risky system instead of investing in the future. It's time to let go of Shuttle.

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