With the three shuttles in the American space program scheduled to be retired by July 2011, there is currently a lot of talk about what will happen to the spacecraft. The official version is that they will be heading out to various museums, but a company is currently proposing that they keep flying.
The catch is that the three orbiters will continue to fly as a commercial service, and not a NASA-sanctioned and controlled program. United Space Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, made the new proposition.
According to the plans laid out by the company, the USA would use only Atlantis and Endeavor, and would fly them about twice per year. The costs associated with this operation will not exceed $1.5 billion annually, the report says.
Flights with the commercial version of the shuttles could begin as early as 2013, as soon as capabilities are restored at an assembly plant where the massive external fuel tanks for the orbiters were until recently made, Space
Engineering crews in charge of constructing new EFT have been laid off from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the tanks were constructed. It will take at least two years to resume production, and to produce the first tank, USA says.
This move would considerably reduce the four-year gap that will develop between when the shuttles are scheduled to retire and when the first, privately-developed space taxis make their way to the International Space Station (ISS).
“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. It is safe. We have a lot of history, we understand how to operate it,” says Mark Nappi.
But the official, who is the head of the USA Florida operations, told employees and those who worked on the new project that the request is “very much a long shot” and that the chances of it getting accepted are very slim.
“We have a lot of work to do to even decide whether or not a business case exists. We have a lot of work to do to see if NASA is even interested, and politically, that's just a big question mark that none of us could ever predict. It is probably still a low probability,” he explains.
One of the reasons for which the idea is unlikely to pass NASA review is that the agency is retiring the space shuttles precisely because they are starting to become unsafe, following decades of operations.
Additionally, as opposed to the $1.5 billion USA is requesting yearly, SpaceX is estimating t flying to the ISS with its Falcon 9/Dragon launch system would cost $560 million per four annual missions.
As such, it would simply be unfeasible for NASA to spend more than twice as much on keeping the deteriorating shuttles in space.
“It really depends on the interest of customers, NASA and the other potential customers. If there's an interest there, we'll continue to work on it. If there's no interest, we're not going to waste our money,” Nappi concludes.