NASA’s dream scenario of a 13 flight extension for shuttle

by Chris Bergin

From a hardware standpoint, the space shuttle fleet could technically fly until 2015, involving up to 13 extra flights – that’s the result of the opening findings from the on-going extension assessment.

Several options – all based around flying two orbiters past 2010, with the support of an ISS “lifeboat” – have been created, although the forward plan of extending the Iran/North Korea/Syria Agreement (INKSA) waiver to utilize the Russian Soyuz remains the favored approach.
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The 2010 to 2015 Gap:

A gap of at least five years between shuttle and Ares/Orion – six years when based on Orion crew rotations on the International Space Station (ISS) – is just around the corner, though the focus on extending shuttle has always been in relation to removing the need for reliance on a foreign launch system during that period.

The current deal to purchase Soyuz flights to transport US astronauts to the ISS expires in 2011. However, given the three year lead time required for the additional production of Soyuz vehicles after 2011, D-Day is fast approaching.

A decision needs to be reached on the forward plan relating to the INKSA wavier by next month, otherwise NASA will be racing head first into the possibility that the US presence on the ISS will come to an end shortly after the shuttle’s retirement.

‘NASA needs Congress to provide legislative extension allowing purchase of Russian Soyuz crew vehicles to support astronauts on the International Space Station by October 2008 or else NASA will have no choice but to de-crew all US astronauts from the ISS in 2012,’ notes a blunt presentation titled: NASA’s urgent need for INKSA waiver.

This was always the forward plan for the past few years. However, US political disagreement with Russia over military action taken in Georgia raised serious questions into the US’ future relationship with Moscow.

The change to the waiver itself would simply strike out the current January 1, 2012 end date, replacing it with July 1, 2016. The decision to approve such a change rests with US lawmakers in Congress.

‘The legislative authority would allow for contract payments to be made beyond 2012,’ stated the presentation. ‘NASA is not allowed to execute a contract without legislative authority to make payments.’

Importantly, the wording of the waiver extension ‘request’ to Congress points out that should lawmakers decide to veto such an authorization, it wouldn’t work out to be a viable ‘bloody nose’ against the Russians – as per Moscow’s comment about their need to take action in Georgia.

Instead, the pro-waiver extension document counters, it would be an own goal against the US space program and its other ISS partners.

‘If Congress does not extend NASA’s legislative exemption to allow the purchase of Russian Soyuz crew services, the result will be to damage the United States’ collaboration with our international partners on the ISS, effectively ceding control of this $50 Billion investment (cost through 2010) to Russia.

‘Denying extension of this legislative authority only hurts the United States space program and our partnership with Canada, Europe, and Japan – not the Russians.’

The document also praises the Russians for their reliance when the US has needed their ISS-related support during the aftermath of the Columbia disaster.

‘While there is significant concern regarding US reliance upon and relationship with Russia because of its incursion into Georgia, Russia has been a good and valuable partner on the ISS, especially in the aftermath of the Columbia accident in February 2003, during which they provided services to continue US operations onboard the Station.’

However, the Russia of 2008 and beyond is becoming increasingly detached, politically, from the Russia of 2003 – pro shuttle extension sources insist.

Extending the shuttle back-up plan:

While the extension of the waiver is ‘priority one’ in the eyes of the current NASA administration, the Georgian conflict has caused a number of politicians to think again about the prospect of giving up the US’ ability to launch its own astronauts, and handing it – at a cost of billions – to Russia.

Several other elements have also been highlighted by the looming retirement date for the shuttle fleet, not least the decimation of the current skill set of engineers that’s embedded into the shuttle program, but also concerns relating to the shaky (pun intended) progress in designing the ‘replacement’ launch system, Ares I.

Surrounding the bigger question of what to do if Congress decides not to approve the waiver extension, the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) was asked to create an assessment/study into the viability of flying two orbiters through the gap, in tandem with continued development of Ares I and Orion, as revealed exclusively by this site and the Orlando Sentinel.

This assessment is still taking place – interrupted by the closedown of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) during hurricane Ike and the subsequent recovery this week – although several baseline ‘assumptions and ground rules’ have already been created to show what would be required to allow the shuttle program to continue from a hardware standpoint.

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As pre-empted, the central issue to an orbiter’s lifetime surrounds the OMRSD (Operations Maintenance Requirements Specifications Document), which determines when an orbiter is due for her Orbiter Maintenance Down Period (OMDP) – classed at present for every 5.5 years of flight, or after every 8 flights.

Recent variations to the OMRSD have been approved for the specific requirement of allowing Atlantis to gain two additional flights after STS-125. Originally Atlantis was due to retire this year, as she closed in on the due ‘date’ for her OMDP – a pointless one year stand-down given the fleet would be retiring around the time she’d be back in service.

The alternation to the OMRSD allowed Atlantis to continue flying, via extended processing flows inside her OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility), so as to allow for ‘mini-OMDPs’ in-between flights based on priority work that would normally be completed in one full OMDP.

Based around the three orbiters and their OMDP requirements, this becomes more complex – with one orbiter retiring, and two orbiters taking responsibility for the manifest. Deciding which orbiter would be retired – and subsequently become a donor of spares to her sisters – is centralized around the OMDP timelines.

‘OV-103 (Discovery) Requirements Summary: OV-103 has flown 5 flights since OMDP (STS-114, STS-121, STS-120, STS-116, STS-124),’ noted an expansive assessment presentation on extending to 2015, available on L2.

‘OMDP required after eight flights or 5.5 years – three flights remain. OMDP 5.5 Year Time Limit Interval is due by September 2010.’

An associated 2015 manifest option document, which has been created for the assessment, shows Discovery flying STS-119 and STS-129 before being placed into an OMDP for one year, before returning for seven flights, including – pending approval – the AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) mission in 2012.

‘OV-104 (Atlantis) Requirements Summary: OV-104 has flown 3 flights since OMDP (STS-115, STS-117, STS-122),’ added the presentation on Atlantis’ status. ‘OMDP required after eight flights or 5.5 years. Five flights remain (with constraints). OMDP 5.5 Year Time Limit Interval is due NET January 21, 2011.’

While Atlantis gains the additional lifespan help from her ‘mini OMDPs’ post STS-125, she is now likely to be the orbiter that finds herself grounded, should an extension to the shuttle’s flying days be approved.

Several notes relating to the state of her Rudder Speed Brake (RSB) actuators and Wing Leading Edge RCC panels are listed as constraints to potentially allowing her to fly into the next decade.

The youngest orbiter in the fleet, Endeavour, appears to be in a favorable state for being flown past 2010, and would gain 11 flights in total – from STS-126, through to 2015, separated by an OMDP in 2013.

‘OV-105 (Endeavour) Requirements Summary: OV-105 has flown two flights since OMDP (STS-118, STS-123). OMDP required after eight flights or 5.5 years. Six flights remain. OMDP 5.5 Year Time Limit Interval is due by January 2013.’

Thus from a hardware standpoint, the vehicles could technically keep flying through the gap, likely resulting in Atlantis retiring – but remaining in a near flight-ready state as a LON (Launch On Need) requirement, while Discovery and Endeavour carry out a tag team effort on flying to the ISS, with up to three flights per year.

It should be stressed that this is based on the what is understood to be the absolute top end of the options being assessed, with alternatives of fewer flights, and through to 2013 also being reviewed.

Extension Problems – Hardware:

Several major issues would need to be resolved if such an extension became reality, and not just the obvious problem of additional funding.

The Space Shuttle Program is already in shutdown, as seen with the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) contractors over the last year, and notably with the External Tanks (ET) at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) – who have already started a twice yearly round of layoffs in New Orleans.

The majority of the assessment presentation is dedicated to hardware requirements (spares/skill sets) solely for the orbiters, citing examples such as ‘Zero spares projected: APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) Gas Generators: FES/FES (Flash Evaporator System) Cores. Hydraulic Actuators. N2/O2 Flow Sensors. Hyd/Water Sep.’

Funding would need to be added to the SSP budget to buy in additional spares, along with the protection of key assets required for the orbiters – ranging from RCC panels to floodlights used in the payload bays.

‘Contract or Capability needs to be extended: DMES (Dimethylethoxysilane). TPS (Thermal Protection System) Waterproofing Agent. RCC Panels. Coldplate Production. OMS/RCS Refurbishment, OMS Tank Bubble Test,’ cited the presentation as examples.

‘Limited Life or Lifetime Buy is Not Enough: Pyros. Fuel Cells. MLG (Main Landing Gear) Tires. Radiator Retract Hoses. Windows. Payload Bay Floodlights.’

On skill set workers alone, one example can be found with the RCC panel production at the vendor, Lockheed Martin: ‘Key personnel retiring before 2010. Decision needed (this year) to hire and train new hires.’

In total, up to 300 parts require attention, either from a supply standpoint, or via certification past 2010.

‘All of these parts should have a re-review to evaluate their goodness for extension to 2015. There are an additional 66 parts the were given expiration dates between 2011 and 2015.’

Impacts to Constellation relate mainly to Ares V’s need for a High Bay inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, along with additional ground support elements at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), while Ares I could ably live alongside an active shuttle program at KSC.

Refinements to ground ops requirements would need to be made regardless.

Lockheed Martin/MAF are also contributing to the assessment, which is concentrating on floor space requirements for Constellation, alongside continued ET production. One source working on MAF’s assessment claims a plan could be ‘doable’, whilst stressing the need for workforce/skill sets and material vendors to be immediately protected.
Extension Problems – ISS:

The largest hurdle to overcome relates to the capability of an orbiter once on orbit, and the requirement of not only transporting astronauts to and from the ISS, but the ability to evacuate them in the eventuality of an emergency on the orbital outpost.

‘Continuing to fly the Space Shuttle past 2010 is not the answer to this situation. Even if the Shuttle continued to fly beyond 2010 the US would still be reliant on Soyuz until NASA’s new Orion crew vehicle comes on-line,’ added the pro-INKSA waiver document.

‘Due to its design limitations, the Space Shuttle can visit the ISS for no more than about two weeks at a time, two to five times per year. The Soyuz can both transport crew and serve as a rescue vehicle attached to the ISS for six-month increments.

‘Under NASA’s present operational safety rules, crew rescue capabilities for astronauts onboard the Space Station are a necessity. Today, only the Russian Soyuz provides this capability.’

However, while that statement doesn’t take into account the recent doubts relating to the health of the Soyuz during extended stays on orbit, the issue of a US-controlled ‘lifeboat’ is also being evaluated on several fronts, especially in relation to opening discussions with COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) partners on providing such a vehicle.

Known as ‘Capability D-minus’, several companies have noted the ability to make available a lifeboat vehicle from 2012 (names and details currently embargoed due to ongoing discussions).

Another possibility that has been noted relates to the refunding of the X-38 crew return vehicle (CRV), which would also serve the evac requirement in-between shuttle missions. However, the initiation of this extension element would wholly depend on the status of the INKSA waiver by the end of this year.

Extension – The Previous ‘Unmanned Orbiters’ Assessment:

This is not the first time the shuttle program has taken a look at flying the orbiters past 2010 – even though the current evaluations are by far the most concerted effort.

A memo (on L2) from Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) head Paul Hill spoke of an assessment into flying ‘unmanned’ orbiters via an increased RCO (Remote Control Orbiter) capability – though it is not known if the assessment was ever completed.

‘There has been some e-mail traffic in the last week on extending the Remote Control Orbiter (RCO) capability,’ noted Hill in 2006. ‘RCO as currently implemented is a contingency capability to undock and deorbit a damaged orbiter from ISS with no crew on board.’

Mr Hill was referencing the current availability of flying home an unmanned orbiter in the event of a LON (Launch On Need) scenario, which would involve the damaged vehicle undocking – ahead of the rescue orbiter arriving at the Station – before being guided home by remote control.

A special cable (currently stowed on the ISS) would be installed ahead of undocking, which would allow for the landing tasks – which currently require manual operation – to be carried out.

Such an unmanned landing during a LON scenario would depend on numerous safety factors, with a destructive ‘tail first’ re-entry still the most likely option for a damaged orbiter.

‘There is some interest now in developing this (RCO) into a full mission capability, thus enabling unmanned shuttles to launch, dock to ISS, undock and land in 2011 and beyond.

‘While that’s an interesting idea and would be a fun development project, we are working to understand the level of effort the program desires for this study.’

Such an effort would not be looked into via the current assessment, given the obvious requirement of crew transportation being key to finding solutions during the gap.

L2 Members: Refer to TAG keywords ‘2015’, ‘Extension’, and ‘Soyuz’ for an extensive selection of related presentations.

L2 members: All documentation – from which the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, updated live.

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