NASA managers present two shuttle extension options to lawmakers

by Chris Bergin

In what is likely to be the final attempt to close the minimum five year gap between the current shuttle retirement date and debuting of Ares/Orion manned flight capability, NASA has presented an expansive shuttle extension study to lawmakers within the past couple of days. The study outlines the costs, risks, benefits and impacts for adding shuttle flights to expand the manifest to 2012 or 2015.

Shuttle Extension still a possibility:

Although a number of layoffs have already begun in shuttle related areas, extension remains a possibility, even though the upcoming release of the next NASA budget on Thursday will not include any language that reflects the intent to pursue either of the two extension options.

This is due to the budget submission only being the first step of the process, where the President proposes, and the Congress disposes. They key decision point will come later in the budget process, which ultimately will decide the forward path for not only the United States’ dominance in space, but also the fate of large section of the space program’s workforce.

That key decision will relate to additional funding, as opposed to the status of the Constellation schedule due to numerous assessments beng undertaken.

The “Final” Study:

Presented to lawmakers on Friday night, the NASA extension study – titled “Impacts of Shuttle Extension. Pursuant to Section 611(e) of the NASA Authorization Act of 2008” – has been late in arriving at the halls of power in Washington, DC, but impresses with its depth of content and objectivity.

Prefaced by an Executive Summary – which mirrors the language of former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who was firmly against extending the operational life of the shuttle program past 2010, the study opens by citing safety concerns and impacts to the Constellation Program.

“It is important to note that Shuttle extension would require several billion dollars in additional funding above what is currently in the FY 2009 budget runout to avoid delaying IOC (Initial Operational Capability) of the Ares I/Orion vehicle,” noted the Executive Summary of the study, which has been acquired by L2.

“Otherwise, the gap between the two capabilities would simply be shifted out, not shortened, delaying the development of a unique domestic capability for both ISS crew transport and rescue and exploration missions beyond low-Earth orbit.”

The opening summary also notes the NASA’s independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) recommendation against extension, which the study claims was presented “recently” – although this appears to be outdated, as it cites: “ASAP strongly endorses the NASA position on not extending Shuttle operations beyond successful execution of the December 2008 manifest, completing the ISS.”

The aforementioned comments appear to match those initially presented in an opening extension study which outlined several options for expanding the manifest. However, this latest “Final” study immediately moves into a more favorable – whilst objective – overview of the possibility of adding flights to reduce the gap.

The two study options:

Two clear options – noted as Case 1 (to 2012) and Case 2 (to 2015) – are presented in the study, the first of which adds three flights to the current manifest, resulting in the retirement of the shuttle in 2012.  The below content concentrates mainly on the 2012 option.

a21The Case 1 option would cost $4.7 billion in additional funds, which the study warns would have to come via new funding, as opposed to draining Constellation’s budget. It also acknowledges recent ‘get-wells’ in adding flights, such as the part builds of at least two new External Tanks at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF), added to the refurbishment of ET-122.

“Case 1 would add three flights and extend the Space Shuttle through 2012. Case 1 would use the existing inventory of External Tank components but would require additional Solid Rocket Booster material and other procurements,” outlined the study

“Unless billions of dollars are added to NASA’s budget, Case 1 would extend the transition time between Space Shuttle retirement and Constellation’s initial operations because the funding for the extension would need to come from Constellation and the funding reductions would greatly slow Constellation development.

“Case 1 would require that approximately $4.7 billion be added to the NASA budget or redirected to the Shuttle from other NASA programs through FY 2012. This estimate includes all costs associated with adding three flights and flying through 2012, and assumes no significant schedule slips within the Shuttle manifest and no changes to the existing (2015 IOC) Constellation baseline.

“The cost estimate includes all costs associated with maintaining production, sustaining engineering, and critical workforce skills needed to safely fly out this scenario. Again, these additional costs are not included in the NASA budget.

The “assumption” that Orion’s IOC date will remain at 2015 is an unknown variable at this time, with the current PMR process currently showing zero confidence in achieving that target.

Several efforts are underway – and/or proposed – to find solutions to funding and disconnect issues related with Constellation’s schedule, although lawmakers at last week’s House appropriations panel hearing were informed by NASA managers that assessments are still continuing on the status of the long-term schedule, and that additional funding would not solve the gap – due to long-lead development constraints.

a31The second option – extending the shuttle program to 2015, involving a schedule of up to 23 missions (including STS-125, and onwards) between now and the middle of the next decade – is deemed less favorable, based on the estimated cost of $14 billion in additional funding, and the unavoidable impacts on Ares V.

This options works on a three flights per year schedule, with three flights added to the manifest if Orion 2 is delayed.

Interestingly the study also cites the potential of a privately developed crew transportation system – likely created via a COTS-D (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) contract.

“Bounding Case 2 would maintain a capability to fly three missions per year through 2015, or a total of 13 beyond 2010,” noted the study. “This capability, along with international partner transportation capabilities, would be available to support the ISS, either through the baseline planned Orion IOC in 2015 or earlier if a crew transport capability supplied by a private U.S. commercial enterprise were viable before 2015.

“Case 2 could only potentially eliminate the interval between Space Shuttle and Constellation operations if about $14 billion were added to NASA’s budget through FY 2015.

“Extending Space Shuttle operations to 2015 would introduce serious challenges to the existing schedule for the Constellation Program’s Ares V lunar capability and might not allow for any “retooling” period between the last flight of Shuttle and the first flight of Ares I/Orion. However, Case 2 would preserve the facilities, workforce, and infrastructure for a heavy lift capability.

“NASA does not believe Space Shuttle operations can be extended this long without severe budget and operational impacts that would effectively postpone Constellation development indefinitely. The $14 billion cost estimate for Case 2 includes all costs associated with flying through 2015, and assumes no changes to the existing (2015 IOC) Constellation Program baseline.

“The cost estimate includes all costs associated with maintaining production, sustaining engineering, and critical workforce skills needed to safely fly out this scenario. These additional costs are not included in the NASA budget.”

The NASA study further expanded on the cost estimates for extension later in the presentation, adding that the costings are based on post-2010 savings on the current shuttle budget – such as via the reduction in the planned flight rate; and increases in production efficiency – but it does not take into account post-retirement costs.

Extra funding equates to minor Constellation impacts:

NASA admits that the additional funding of $4.7 billion – spread over three years – would allow a reduction in the gap by the full two years, with only minor impacts to the Constellation Program, impacts NASA claims could be mitigated.

Again, Case 1 – extending to 2012, is favored over extending to 2015, due to the unavoidable conflicts the five year extension would have on the handover of facilities earmarked for Ares V work.

“NASA assessed the impacts of both extension cases on the ISS and Constellation baseline programs. If $4.7 billion in additional funds were provided, Case 1 had only minor negative impacts on planned Constellation baseline milestones, which NASA believes could be mitigated,” the study noted.

“Case 1 benefited ISS by providing three additional missions to the ISS and additional crew rotation, although it did not reduce the need for the purchase of Russian Soyuz vehicles for crew rescue purposes.

“Case 2 had more significant impacts on planned Constellation milestones independent of additional funding from other parts of NASA. In particular, flying the Space Shuttle beyond 2012 would delay handover of some facilities critical to the Ares V program including areas of MAF, Pad A at KSC, which Constellation plans to reconfigure for Ares V; and the A2 test stand at the Stennis Space Center, which Constellation plans to use for J-2X engine development.”

Manifest replan – OMDP requirements:

a4Should the US government approve the additional funding to allow for an extension, the shuttle schedule would be slightly realigned after STS-128 flies to the ISS this August. STS-131 and STS-132 would also remain in their scheduled timeframe.

“Both Case 1 and Case 2 would fly the current manifest, as scheduled, through STS-128 (17A), currently scheduled to launch August 2009. Maintaining the near-term manifest through these flights would stabilize ISS crew rotations on Space Shuttle,” the study outlined. “ISS missions 19A and ULF 4 would fly in the same general time period as shown on the current manifest to support ISS logistics for a six-person crew.

“Pursuing Case 1 would foreclose the possibility of additional flights beyond 2012 without significant additional cost and technical risk due to the closure of flight hardware production contracts no longer needed to complete hardware already in production. Case 2 would preserve the capability to fly beyond 2012 to no later than 2015, if required.”

As previously noted in extension studies, plans have always rotated around flying two orbiters on the additional flights to 2012. For Case 1, those flights would be tasked to Atlantis and Endeavour, with Discovery retiring after flying the AMS payload to the ISS on proposed – but not officially baselined – STS-134 mission, at least according to the manifest graphic for a 2012 extension.

“Case 1 would require no new External Tank production through 2012. It would require an extension to the Orbiter Maintenance Down Period (OMDP) 5.5 year interval requirement for Atlantis/OV-104; Discovery/OV-103 and Endeavour/OV-105 have sufficient margin to fly out the manifest through 2012. The Case 1 manifest rephases some flights from the current manifest.”

The reference to the OMDP requirement – when an orbiter is required to standdown for around a year in order to undergo major overhaul work – is due for Discovery after the proposed STS-134 mission. Given she would only be ready to return to flight status after 2011, her operational lifetime will come to an end after STS-134 based on Case 1.

The Program Requirements Control Board (PRCB) already extended the orbiter’s flight duration inbetween OMDPs to a length of eight flights and five and a half years – instead of the previous three years, installing “mini OMDP” work to be carried out in the Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) during processing flows.

This ultimately allowed for the stay of execution for Atlantis, after she was previously scheduled to be retired in 2008, at the conclusion of STS-125 – pre-slip, and another effort on increasing the OMDP interval – likely based on interim priority work inbetween processing flows – would be likely be required for Atlantis and Endeavour.

Challenges with extension:

The study continues by citing the need for a standdown period between the end of shuttle operations and the start of Constellation – though the study fails to specify if the Constellation date refers to Orion’s IOC date.

a9“There will need to be cessation in operations between the Space Shuttle and Constellation. This operational reconfiguration period is necessary to allow time to prepare for the next phase of space exploration,” the study noted.

“Facilities that are needed for both Space Shuttle and Constellation operations need to be modified, key workforce needs to be retrained on Constellation systems (ideally while their Space Shuttle operations experience is fresh), and Constellation production and operations processes need to be exercised.

“For these reasons, NASA estimates that a minimum of approximately 18–24 months of reconfiguration time is needed to enable an orderly transition from Space Shuttle to Constellation operations while minimizing disruptions to the workforce with critical skills.

“NASA identified issues that presented major and minor obstacles to achieving the proposed Space Shuttle manifest cases, ISS key milestones, and Constellation key milestones.

“Major issues are those that need considerable program attention or funding to resolve that is outside the span of control for the program. If not adequately resolved, these issues could prevent NASA from executing its programs as proposed. Minor issues are those for which mitigation currently exists or that can be resolved with a minimum of additional work or funding.”

Listed as minor issue, the Orbiter Project – based at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – referenced the “certification” of the orbiters for flying through to 2012.

“In its 2003 report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) recommended that, if NASA chose to fly Shuttle Orbiters beyond 2010, the Agency should develop and conduct a vehicle certification at the material, component, subsystem, and system levels to determine if Orbiter hardware was being processed and operated within qualification and certification limitations.

“The Space Shuttle program performed a review of the vehicle certification and the certification verification assessments during return to flight (RTF) to assure the vehicles could fly through 2010.

“At the time of this initial review, NASA Shuttle managers decided that a complete vehicle recertification would not be necessary to fly past 2010; however, under the Case 1 scenario, NASA would need to reassess the certification packages and material review of the critical components on the Orbiter to ensure there were no time and cycle or material age-related issues or other potential safety considerations.

“NASA would also ensure that the vehicle continues to operate within the constraints and requirements defined by its current certification. Required inspections and testing during vehicle processing would provide.”

a6The Orbiter Project also referenced the delay to the Orion Docking Hardware in the event of an extension to 2012, but also noted a potential solution.

“If the Shuttle Program were extended beyond 2010, Orbiter-ISS docking hardware, the Androgynous Peripheral Assembly System (APAS), would not be available for handover to the Orion Project in January 2010. This would delay the development of the Orion ISS docking system.

“To address this delay, the Orion Project would likely re-evaluate a previously studied alternate to develop the docking system using a common berthing mechanism instead of the Shuttle APAS interface. Potential delivery of this docking adapter to ISS by the Shuttle might also be evaluated.”

On the NASA civil servant workforce, the transition of employees from SSP to Constellation – based on the current scenario of shuttle retirement in 2010 – would be interrupted. Again, the Orbiter Project believes this issue can be mitigated.

“The Constellation Program is anticipating that, as Shuttle retires, SSP civil servant workforce will transfer to Constellation to support exploration. Extending the Shuttle would alter the profile of this workforce transfer.

“NASA engineering and operations teams currently support both programs, so NASA anticipates that there would continue to be significant synergies between the two programs that would mitigate this risk.”

Safety Risks and Mitigation:

Often cited by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin as a reason against extending the shuttle manifest, the risk of losing an orbiter during a mission is examined by the study.

a5“The latest Space Shuttle probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) indicates that the single mission risk for loss of crew and vehicle (LOCV) is 1 in 77; stated another way, there is a 98.7 percent probability of safely executing each flight.

“NASA has conducted a number of PRAs for the Space Shuttle since 1987, and the average risk of LOCV has remained fairly consistent over that time. This risk is predicted to remain consistent over the remaining life of the program. The primary drivers for LOCV are, in order of the magnitude of their contribution to the overall risk: micro-meteoroid/orbital debris (MMOD), ascent debris, and Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) malfunctions.

“In addition, NASA will continue to evolve its PRA tools to address anomalies encountered during flight operations. By monitoring anomaly trends across different categories (for example, by whether an anomaly is due to design issues, age, operations or procedurally-induced effects, or unknown or random phenomena), NASA gains both near-term insights into Space Shuttle performance opportunities for potential safety improvements during ongoing operations as well as longer-term benefit in applying experience-based risk models to future programs like Constellation.

“For Case 1, flying 12 missions (current manifest, plus AMS, plus three additional flights) would result in a higher cumulative risk of catastrophic failure due to more flights, when compared to the current nine mission baseline. The Shuttle PRA calculates the probability of LOCV during a nominal mission to be between 1 in 45 and 1 in 130 per mission with 90 percent confidence. This number contains many assumptions.”

Those assumptions are expanded on in depth later in the study, with the threat of LOVC expanding in the event of extending the program to 2015, due obviously to the additional flights Case 2 calls for.

However, the PRA numbers also require adjustment on both sides of the spectrum when taking into account the increasing age of the orbiters, but also the numerous safety improvements that have been – and will continue to be – made on the vehicles.

“NASA’s safety and mission assurance strategy emphasizes the need for rigorous program and independent safety reviews, as well as continual safety improvements throughout a program’s life cycle. Improvements to both processes and hardware are made for each Space Shuttle flight, and NASA will continue to invest in prudent safety enhancements through the last mission.

a8“Recently, these have included analyses of composite overwrap pressure vessels (COPVs), thermal protection systems, and structural components from Space Shuttle Columbia. These analyses provide NASA engineers with insight into the performance of Space Shuttle systems under extreme conditions and performance data on flight systems which are normally inaccessible during regular and major maintenance processing flows.

“In addition, instrumentation that was recently added to the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motors and crew cabin as part of the Constellation Program’s development activity has provided useful data to help refine existing Space Shuttle engineering models.”

Also aiding the PRA numbers are additional “safety investment opportunities”, which were identified by the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, several of which have already been implemented – including installing improved inertial reels on the crew restraint straps and providing an upgraded crew survival radio with GPS tracking.

“NASA is evaluating several other enhancements that could be implemented before 2010, including a GPS personal locator beacon; improved seatbelts and retention straps; increased head and neck protection; and improved supplemental oxygen,” the study continued.

“If Shuttle were extended beyond 2010, several other safety improvements would be assessed for implementation. These include conformal crew helmets; battery powered intercoms; automatic parachute deployment; and automatic helmet visor closure during depressurization.

“NASA’s cost estimates for Space Shuttle extension include approximately $20M per year, starting in FY 2010, to continually evaluate and implement these and other potential Shuttle safety enhancements. SSP would also work closely with the Orion Project to identify opportunities to use the Space Shuttle as a testbed to evaluate safety enhancements to Orion seats and crew equipment.”

Procurements with contractors for extension:

In the event of an extension, procurement offices at Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center reviewed the requirements associated with six of the Space Shuttle prime contracts to determine the impact of extending the SSP.

“All of the contracts reviewed would require a procurement action to extend performance to 2012 and beyond. To extend the contracts, NASA would have to complete a master buy submission, a Procurement Strategy Meeting (PSM), a complete Request For Proposal and subsequent negotiation, and a contract instrument.

“Three of the six – the Space Program Operations Contract (SPOC) and the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engines) and ET contracts – would not require additional justification for other than full and open competition (JOFOC), while the other three would require new JOFOC authority.

“Extension of the contracts would require a length of contract Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) deviation which needs approval by the HQ Office of Procurement. Two of the contracts, Reusable Solid Rocket Motor (RSRM) and ET, would have a potential for an Undefinitized Contract Action (UCA) to assure availability of long-lead materials. In addition, there are other, small activities which would be accomplished with procurement activity to extend performance.

“Most of the contracts currently include special provisions for human capital retention which would have to be renegotiated since the current provisions were timed for a program end in 2010. The exception to this is the imaging contract with Neptec because this contract does not contain a retention provision.”


The study also produced notes on the evaluations relating to 2015, with respect to risk, safety, OMDPs, and impacts to Constellation – with the latter proving to be far more serious in relation to both Ares I/Orion and especially Ares V.

However, the more favorable 2012 extension option (Case 1) received additional notes of support, not previously seen in extension study presentations. However, once again, NASA insists that the additional $4.7 billion must be new money, as opposed to being switched from the Constellation Program.

If new funds were forthcoming, NASA claim – and again for the first time – the extension of the shuttle could actually benefit the Constellation Program.

“Extending SSP could provide ancillary benefits for the ISS and Constellation programs, assuming that the $4.7 billion needed to extend SSP aren’t taken from those programs. The Space Shuttle provides upmass capability to the ISS and the only significant downmass capability from the Station. This downmass capability could enable the U.S. to expand science and basic research aboard the Station and to support future exploration.

“Until replacement crew and heavy-lift capabilities are available, the Space Shuttle is also the only vehicle that can, if necessary, carry out some ISS repairs and large component replacements in the event they are necessary, although NASA is pre-positioning spares on the Space Station prior to 2010 retirement to mitigate this need.

“Because the Space Shuttle can provide ISS crew rotation, extension might also provide the U.S. with greater flexibility in negotiating with Russia for Soyuz purchases;
however, the U.S. would still require the Russian Soyuz to provide emergency crew return from ISS.

“The additional Space Shuttle missions could potentially benefit the Constellation Program by providing a limited opportunity to use the Shuttle as a platform for testing the Constellation Program hardware, software, and new operational principles in the combined environments of space.

Another key item is the support for the International Space Station – especially if its operational lifetime is extended to the proposed date of 2020.

“The Space Shuttle provides unique capabilities in support of the ISS program. From an ISS perspective, extending Space Shuttle operations would provide some additional (but currently unfunded) opportunities for increased utilization, while at the same time mitigating some of ISS’ operational risks.

“The Space Shuttle’s large carrying capacity (with a cargo bay measuring 15 x 60 feet and capable of carrying approximately 35,000 pounds to the ISS) means that it can deliver payloads that no currently available vehicle in either the U.S. or international partner inventory can deliver.

a7“Extending the Space Shuttle beyond the current manifest would create more opportunities for flying experiments within the large pressurized Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLM), or carrying oversized research payloads or additional pressurized and unpressurized elements. It is important to note, however, that none of this research is currently funded.”

While the Station will be supplied with hardware via the $3.5 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, awarded to Orbital and SpaceX, the downmass capability of shuttle is also noted in the study. Any extension option would still work side-by-side with the CRS partners.

“The Shuttle is also currently unique in being able to return large, failed orbital replacement units (ORU) to Earth for detailed failure analysis. Overall, ISS hardware continues to perform well on orbit, and NASA is pre-positioning hardware and supplies on the ISS with Space Shuttle before 2010.

“If Station operations continue past 2015 and no new capability to return ORUs emerges, additional Shuttle flights beyond 2010 could be used to fly these ORUs and therefore reduce overall operational risk to the ISS program,” the study adds.

“Extending Shuttle operations, however, is no substitute for commercial providers of primary cargo and (eventually) crew transportation capabilities to the ISS once these capabilities are available.”

A large amount of work would be required if extension receives the necessary funding, especially in coordinating the eventual transition from shuttle to Constellation. However, the reference to Constellation acceleration is now a moot point, as the ability to advance the IOC date for Orion is now longer viable.

“Given the fact that Space Shuttle and Constellation draw upon a largely common pool of workforce skills, production capabilities, operational facilities, and budget resources, efforts to extend either Space Shuttle or accelerate Constellation would likely impact, to some extent, capabilities that are critical to the success of the other (though some of these impacts can be mitigated through additional coordination).

“Additional analysis would be required to fully identify the mutual dependencies, key decision points, shared resource strategies, and cost impacts of a strategy that incorporated elements of both extension and acceleration.”

Ultimately, there will be a gap between shuttle retirement and Orion’s manned debut. The question remains how long a gap the US government wishes to place on its human space flight capability via the near-term and downstream budget levels.

“Available budget resources essentially compel a cessation in operations between the Space Shuttle and Constellation, as reflected in current national space exploration policy.

“From a strategic perspective, U.S. leadership in human space flight space will be demonstrated by both ensuring robust ISS operations after the retirement of the Shuttle and developing a space transportation system capable of supporting exploration activities on the Moon and beyond.”

L2 members: Documentation – from which most of the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, now over 4000 gbs in size.

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