Next Gen Shuttle-Capable vehicle interest as secret effort to save orbiters ends

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For the past several months, a plan to restart shuttle operations – funded by billions of dollars of secured non-government investment – was under evaluation with NASA and shuttle contractors prior to the secret effort ending last week. However, the group behind the effort have now switched their focus to a “Next Generation, Shuttle Capable” vehicle – with details to be announced next year.

The Final Effort To Save Shuttle:

It was an emotional final three flights of the shuttle fleet, with the beginning of the end marked by Commander Steve Lindsey’s “Get ready to witness the majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts off one final time” speech over the flight loop moments before the start of STS-133’s mission, with the flying days ended by Commander Chris Ferguson’s personal tribute to the fleet after Atlantis’ wheels stop, thanking them for protecting the crews.

As millions watched these final flights launch and land, each time marked by the emotional sound of the orbiter’s Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) being extinguished of life for the final time, the public started to realize the United States – and indeed the world – was losing the most capable space vehicle ever built.

While NASA went into a public relations overdrive to try and emphasize that America’s loss of its domestic crewed launch capability was only going to be for several years, political and public disappointment that NASA funding would be spent on buying taxi rides on Russian Soyuz vehicles to an International Space Station (ISS) mainly constructed and paid for by the United States, was main concern.

Eventually, commercial crew capsules, such as SpaceX’s Dragon will be able to ferry astronauts to the ISS, but not until after the middle of this decade. Even under the current best case scenario for commercial crew and cargo, a return to the full capability enjoyed by the shuttle will never be regained via the current commercial suitors.

However, behind the scenes, details of a major proposal were revealed to NASASpaceflight, pointing to what was the last – but by far the most comprehensive – attempt to return the Shuttle to flight operations.

The plan – held under an agreed embargo by this site’s editor, so as not to damage negotiations – involved billions of dollars of private investment being pumped back into shuttle operations, saving Atlantis and Endeavour to return to flight operations no earlier than the end of 2014.

Even before Atlantis had landed for the final time, opponents to shuttle extension were citing the problem of key contractors shutting down, all based around President Bush’s decision to retire the fleet following the completion of ISS assembly. This challenge would have been partially mitigated by potential changes to the contracts and mechanisms used by NASA during the Space Shuttle Program (SSP).

“One of the advantages of our purely commercial approach is that it allowed our engineers to consider alternative suppliers and advances in manufacturing, materials, processing, and production across the globe and across several industries,” noted Dr. Mary Lynne Dittmar, who helped lead strategic development and served as the primary government and industry liaison for the team designing the restart plan.

“Our objective was to benefit the Commercial Shuttle venture by implementing best of breed systems engineering and risk assessment and maintaining a focus on shortening the post-flight-to-flight processing cycle while upholding safety as the prime consideration.”

While Discovery was officially removed from flight status during the evaluations, along with the Shuttle Program being handed over to Transition and Retirement (T&R) operations, Endeavour and Atlantis remained in a flow which did not technically preclude a stay of execution.

It was also these two orbiters which were the focal point of all recent “extension” studies (L2 Link to documentation), ranging back to the Augustine Commission into the future of Human Space Flight (HSF) and continued through to the United Space Alliance’s interest in commercial operations of the orbiters via NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards.

The United Space Alliance (USA) also submitted a proposal this year (L2 Link), one which called for funding of a study to finalize the architecture for a Commercial Shuttle Transportation Service (CSTS). But that proposal did not go forward.

By way of removing one of the major barriers to previous commercial proposals – government funding – members of the new team allied with potential investors both in the United States and in Europe, which proved to be the breakthrough for the new proposal to approach NASA.

“A number of potential investors were contacted, and one of those was Kevin Holleran – a businessman and investor from London, England. Kevin was sufficiently interested to enter into a process of due diligence and eventually decided he would invest in the concept. He then set about identifying individuals and organizations that would be critical to the success of the venture and the building of a credible plan.

These included former NASA scientists and officials, notably ex-Deputy Center Director and former Director of MOD Randy Stone, who introduced Kevin to Dr. Dittmar as someone with substantial political, industry and operational expertise within the space industry.  The team then evolved, ensuring many complex elements of a restart plan were evaluated.

Over time the concept developed toward a full “go forward” plan, based around a return to flight operations returning at a gradually increasing pace, notably wiping out the majority of the US domestic launch capability gap, before hitting the pace of four flights per year in 2017.

Based on “available demand” – details of which are proprietary – it was anticipated one flight would have taken place at the end of 2014, then two in 2015, three in 2016, and four a year beginning in 2017.

The major difference between the team’s concept and the extension studies of the past was the cost impact to NASA. It had always been a central problem for the Agency, where it simply could not afford to pay for everything it wanted to do – specifically the continued flight of the Space Shuttle and the development of the next generation exploration vehicles.

This proposal partially removed that barrier, as explained by Dr Dittmar.

“In previous proposals, NASA was asked to put a substantial amount of funding into the effort – anywhere from $500M to over $1B a year, basically to subsidize the commercial effort as well as to purchase services from the Commercial Shuttle organization.

“In our case, however, Private Investment, individuals, as well as institutional investors and banks, came to the table with significant startup funding for refitting the Orbiters, refurbishing processing facilities, starting up production lines, etc. 

“However, one of our guiding principles was a “non-interference/no negative impact” policy with regard to existing NASA programs and another was that a commercial shuttle would require rapid access to infrastructure in order to be responsive to the market. 

“Much more of the infrastructure had been repurposed toward the existing NASA Programs of Record than we knew when we began.  In the end, it became obvious that this  is one of those situations in which even very substantial funding could not address these issues sufficiently.

“NASA’s support of the discussions was invaluable in helping everyone fully understand the ‘facts on the ground’, while at the same time encouraging the team’s interest in space. We are also grateful for the support of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who advocated a thorough consideration of the initiative from early on in the process.”

The End Of The Restart Effort:

The orbiters continue to be cared for at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), a facility which has already started to transition towards the 21st Century Launch Complex – the name given for the conversion of the Florida spaceport into a future home for the Space Launch System (SLS) and commercial vehicles.

One Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) is being redesigned to host the flow requirements of Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, resulting in one orbiter taking her turn to enjoy a vacation inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

Unlike Discovery, whose wings have effectively been clipped by the decommissioning of her OMS Pods, Atlantis and Endeavour have not reached a point of no return – at least not during the evaluations.

Via the construction and evaluation of the restart proposal, the team was aware of the programmatic, technical and operational issues which required resolution before returning the orbiters to flight operations, not least because the vehicles will be changing call signs from Agency to Commercial spacecraft.

The plan was to request NASA issue a “stop order” on further T&R work for Atlantis and Endeavour, allowing for a several month period to finalize solutions to all known challenges relating to restart.

Via the discussions with NASA, the main problem did not prove to be the technical ability to return the two orbiters to flight, nor the often-used dark cloud of crew safety. The roadblock in the plan – a plan which remained in discussion between the team and NASA until this week – was the transition to SLS.

This is ironic, given one of the most expansive shuttle extension studies via the Augustine commission into the future Human Space Flight resulted in former astronaut Sally Ride presenting findings that a preferred transition be the extension of space shuttle operations through until around 2015, providing the follow on program worked with an element of commonality with Shuttle’s hardware. (L2 Link to Documentation)

Despite it taking over two years for NASA to finally announce the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) configuration as one which was Shuttle Derived, it came after the last flight of the Shuttle Program. Regardless, Sally Ride’s plan did fail on costs, which showed NASA funding simply could not afford to continue flying the space shuttle at the same time as developing the new vehicle, a key component which would have been mitigated by the new proposal.

In the end, it was the amount of “repurposing” that has already taken place for SLS which resulted in agreement with NASA that any potential return of the Space Shuttle was no longer viable, ending the discussions.  Whether the technical issues could have been overcome will therefore never be known.

“During the past few months, a last ditch attempt to re-fly the Space Shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis under a truly commercial banner has finally come to an unworkable conclusion,” noted Mr. Holleran in a statement to NASASpaceflight.com.

“A group of space interested investors and technical and operational experts have been working quietly in the background with NASA and major Shuttle suppliers to look at the feasibility of operating the Shuttles commercially. Despite the best efforts of all involved it was simply too late.

“Much of the infrastructure has already been disassembled, or repurposed for SLS and opportunity is lost.”

Despite the setback, Mr. Holleran added the group is now refocusing its efforts on a next generation vehicle, one which includes the numerous advantages of the Space Shuttle’s capabilities. This effort is now in work behind the scenes, ahead of an announcement next year into the outlines of the new system.

“This space interested investment group has now switched its focus to a next generation Space transportation vehicle with Shuttle capabilities,” added Mr. Holleran. “The group hopes to make announcements as to its intentions end of the first quarter of 2012.”

Follow on resources:
Public Forum Reaction Thread.
L2 Q&A with team members on the Shuttle Restart Effort.
L2 Q&A and Updates on the Next Gen Vehicle Effort.

Please note: Clickable links with (L2) references point directly to cited L2 content. Such content is only available to L2 members (please ensure you are logged in). All other clickable links point to NSF articles and open content.

Images: Via L2 content. Larry Sullivan MaxQ Entertainment/NASASpaceflight.com Other images via NASA.)

(NSF/L2 will continue to follow the fallout from this story, along with discussion and updates on the next gen option. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

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