Tuesday, April 14, 2009

End of the Space Shuttle Program

The news, from Maniak, Internal Monologue's rocketry expert:
Effective yesterday, NASA declared the end of all shuttle operations not related to missions currently on the manifest. This includes things like manufacturing of spare parts, external tank and booster sets, and any payload not currently manifested. The shuttle operational budget terminates as of Sept 30, 2010, and all the budget previously designated for project continuation activities is now being redirected to an emergency fund that will be used to cover the period from October 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010 in case launch dates slip into this time frame due to delays over the next 18 months. After January 1, 2011, the shuttle program will have a skeletal shutdown-only budget that includes safing and inerting the remaining orbiters, and transport via Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to permanent storage/display. The transfer of shuttle facilities to Project Constellation is already in a slow startup phase. The next particular milestone is scheduled for May 28th, when Pad 39B will be transferred to Project Constellation.
Maniak's opinion of the shuttle program overall:
In historical retrospect, I think the shuttle program would have to be considered a big waste of money, 30 years and 14 lives. Yeah, it's hard to say that, because technically, they're some of the coolest vehicles ever designed. Also, that criticism is only valid in hindsight. Drop me back to 1972, and I'd probably have signed off on it as well. As originally formulated, it was a great concept, but also flawed from the beginning. The program needed 15-25 annual launches to begin to make financial sense, and only ever really approached this level in 1985. The inherent problem in this, though was that the space station program couldn't justify this number of launches, so the bulk of the early program was diverted almost entirely to satellite launch, which delayed station construction, diverted R&D on cheaper commercial launchers, and led to unacceptable pressures on the safety constraints. The International Space Station project was the eventual genuine success of the shuttle program, but was in itself heavily compromised in a vicious cycle by problems with the shuttle program. Unlike some who consider ISS operations a waste of money, I think that's one thing that's been worth it, but that aspect probably could have been achieved better by a different American heavy lift launch system. The end of the shuttle program was supposed to transition smoothly to what eventually became Project Constellation, but in the early phases of Constellation development, almost all the shuttle-derived components have had to be replaced by more suitable Apollo-derived components, meaning that the shuttle has effectively become an evolutionary dead end. Had NASA gone with further Apollo-based development vs the shuttle in 1972, even at Constellation's glacial pace, we would have been where we are today by 1979, permanently on the moon by the late 80s or early 90s, and planning or achieving the first manned Mars missions by 2000 at the latest. My biggest concern with the shutdown today is that there is nothing to replace it, and I still think a bad launcher is better than none. We are going to have at least a 5 year gap in manned launch capability, and at least a 9 year gap in heavy lift. During this time, we're going to be completely dependent on Russia and Europe respectively to fill these roles. I'm all for international cooperation, but I'm enough of a nationalist to think that it should be done on equal terms. It's a bit disturbing to think that 2 years from now, the U.S. will have access to the International Space Station only in the same sense as Belgium or Brazil.

A brief writeup from Spaceflight Now, though Maniak's info seems to be more up to date.

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