Whether you are surprised by this news or not, it is a big development for the future of NASA. An internal email within the space agency has instructed staff to begin preliminary planning for a feasibility study into extending the life of the Space Shuttle fleet until 2015. This isn’t a one year extension, this isn’t just one extra flight, this is a full five year extension beyond the scheduled decommissioning date set by NASA.
This email, although downplayed by NASA sources, appears to show a U-turn in the political climate behind the agency’s closed doors. So what prompted the decision to commence a feasibility study? Could the Shuttle be safely flown after 2010?
It could be that there is an election coming and both US presidential candidates (Barack Obama and John McCain) have recently made the US space program their top priority. It could be because the cool US-Russia relationship has chilled even more after the Russian invasion of Georgia at the start of this month (and yes, it was an invasion, and I know, the US/UK/Allies also invaded Iraq, therefore making us as bad as the next guy etc. etc. This is politics and it isn’t fair or right, it’s just the way it is). It might even be that NASA is a little old fashioned when it comes to accessing the International Space Station between 2010 and 2015 (i.e. they want to do it themselves without relying on foreign hardware). Regardless of the (political) pressures on NASA’s officials, something will obviously need to be done when it comes to the “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning (in 2010) and Constellation launch (in 2015).
Perhaps if the US and Russia had a closer working relationship then the Soyuz option could be more realistic, but in the real world, tensions are very high when it comes to the possibility that NASA could be frozen out of the ISS at the will of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
So today, news breaks that NASA is evaluating a possible solution to this problem by initiating a feasibility study into extending the operational lifetime of the quarter-century-old Shuttle fleet. The first Shuttle was launched in 1981, and the renewable system has proven to be a highly dependable and robust spaceship, but it must be retired. Concern over safety aspects prompted NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to point out that to extend the life of the Shuttle would put astronauts at danger and divert precious funds from the brand new Constellation Program. However, it would appear Griffin feels some pressure to arrive at a solution to the political fallout of world events.
And the only answer has always been: extend the life of the Shuttle.
On Wednesday, the internal email sent by John Coggeshall, manager of manifest and schedules at Johnson Space Center in Houston, detailed the possibility of a preliminary study into extra Shuttle flights. “We want to focus on helping bridge the gap of U.S. vehicles traveling to the ISS (International Space Station) as efficiently as possible,” he said. However, in response to news that the email had made it into the public domain, NASA was keen to play down the email saying it was premature and that the goals of the study had not yet been defined. In short, they are considering their options.
But flying two shuttle flights a year until 2015 is exactly the kind of option NASA is now looking at, according to NASA officials and the email sent Wednesday by John Coggeshall, Manifest and Schedules manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston – Text from the Orlando Sentinel (Aug. 29th)
Apart from my obvious wish that the Ares/Orion system was already complete by the time the Shuttle had to be retired, I feel that this may be the only option open to the US space agency. We all know that from political unrest spawns uncertainty for the exploration of space, we simply cannot predict how US-Russian relations will be two days from now, let alone two years! NASA is the spearhead of space exploration, like it or not. If the US is prevented from sending manned missions into space for five years, this may result in a damaging pause in international space efforts.
If the Shuttle can be brought out of retirement, I think it should…
Source: Universe Today