As the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) heads into its final week of operations, United Space Alliance (USA) Vice President and SSP manager Howard DeCastro has spoken about how the retirement of the fleet makes no sense, from a technical, ISS support and national security standpoint. A last ditch reversal of the decision, likely via a NASA/commercial arrangement, would require a “miracle”, due to political obstructions.
Howard DeCastro Interview:
The Shuttle Program closed out a 30 year career this summer when Atlantis returned home after a highly successful STS-135 mission.
She was welcomed back into the warm embrace of her NASA and contractor workforce, of which the United Space Alliance (USA) team provide the role as the main guardians of the fleet.
The term “bitter-sweet” was mentioned numerous times before, during and after Atlantis’ mission, although the overwhelming public response to the realization that STS-135 was the last NASA shuttle mission saw the word being used in the negative connotation.
Reactions varied from proud, through to sad, bemused and somewhat angry – as the United States effectively gave up its leadership in space – feelings which Mr DeCastro empathizes with.
“I can easily understand the public’s response. All Americans share a common desire to feel secure,” noted Mr DeCastro in an interview with NASASpaceFlight.com. “The U.S. Government is spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year in Defense and Homeland Security funding to provide for the defense of the nation.
“Technological developments in space-based battlefield intelligence and war fighter assistance have played a significant role in the tactical successes of the U.S. military in recent campaigns. Superiority in the air – now space – has long been the key to our national security.
“History has shown that our human spaceflight program promoted domestic security; fostered the development of new technologies and industries; created high-skilled, well-paid jobs; and inspired many of our youth to study science, math and engineering – the technical human capital that ensured our country achieved its global economic strength in the 20th century.”
With the United States losing its own domestic human launch vehicle capability, Americans face a reality of watching their astronauts ride to a Space Station – which they have paid the majority of funding towards – on the Russian Soyuz, at the cost of several hundred million dollars of NASA funding over the next four or so years.
Although this is a temporary requirement, Mr DeCastro – a US Marine Corp. Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) – added that the implications of this interim agreement are centric to the potential problems a dependency on a foreign nation can result in. Directly, the highly respected manager feels the effective utilization of America’s national laboratory may suffer.
“Based on what I have read in the press, Americans are wondering why the United States would turn over the “high ground” – America’s lead in Human Space Flight – to other nation’s at a time when both our national and economic security are at risk,” he added.
“The United States is now dependent on the Russians to move our U.S. astronaut corps to the Space Station. In addition to the national security and economic concerns that dependence on Russia to transport American astronauts severely limits the amount of time U.S .research can be conducted aboard the Station at the exact point in time when the Station is finally assembled and open for business.
“Despite the fact that the U.S. taxpayer paid tens of billions of dollars to construct the Station’s unique microgravity research laboratory, in the future, the annual mix of astronauts aboard the ISS will be six Russian, four American, and two others (shared by Europe, Japan, and Canada).
“The day-to-day operational workload for the American astronauts aboard the ISS will be high and will provide only limited time for research into important vaccines such as salmonella and MSRA to mention only two of the experiments started by U.S. astronauts this past year.”
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While the decision to retire the Space Shuttle was effectively made as a result of the tragic loss of Columbia during her return from STS-107, a retirement plan drawn up under the stewardship of former NASA administrator Mike Griffin – part of the now-defunct Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – was carried forward and supported by current Administrator Charlie Bolden.
It is often argued whether or not the current administrator could have reversed the retirement decision – had their been the political will – with the shutdown of shuttle-related vendors already in work by the time General Bolden took office.
However, from the early days of his leadership of NASA, it was clear the former Shuttle Commander had no intention of providing the Shuttle with a lifeline – as noted during an interview with the BBC, as he shook his head saying “no, it’s time to move on” when asked if there could be some additional flights.
Since then, General Bolden and especially his number two – Lori Garver – have been using nearly every opportunity with the media to talk of a “bright future”, centralized around the use of commercial vehicles, which are tasked with replacing the human domestic launch capability lost by the retirement of the Shuttle for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) operations.
While that capability is set to return in the 2015 timeframe, Mr DeCastro believes NASA’s transition places the United States human spaceflight program in “jeopardy” via the insistence of “subsidizing” the development of commercial companies which have already shown signs of not being able to keep to their projected schedules.
“In my opinion, the decision to terminate the Shuttle Program does not make sense since the “bright future” is further off than advertised and is dependent on the success of “commercial” space companies who, so far, have failed to meet their schedules for cargo resupply to the station,” Mr DeCastro noted.
“As yet those are the same entities NASA wants to rely upon for U.S. astronaut transport. As a business man, I applaud our Nation’s entrepreneurs since they are the backbone of our Nation’s economy. I have been in numerous business sectors during the past 50 years and I value the risk takers who created the industries that made our nation great.
“But if you study this particular situation closely, NASA is placing our Nation’s human spaceflight program in jeopardy in order to subsidize the development of some “commercial” space companies. Personally, I would not risk so much for the benefit of so few.
“I believe the public’s opinion will change only if the United States regains our Nation’s leadership position in human space exploration. I hope I live long enough to see that happen.”
Currently, it is more likely than not that the commercial partners will be able to take up the reigns of providing transportation to NASA astronauts, although that will only be one element of the capability lost by retiring Shuttle both during the gap and the initial ramp up of commercial cargo flights.
“NASA was not provided the funding needed to fly the Shuttles until a replacement program was operational. As a result, NASA has developed plans to support the International Space Station with the transport that is now available,” added Mr DeCastro.
“There is some risk that the providers may not be able to meet the manifest and there is some risk that a component failure on the ISS could reduce its capability and even its length of service. All of this has been carefully considered by NASA and the plans in place have an excellent chance of success.
“Tradeoffs were needed due to funding constraints. Not an uncommon problem these days. If the Shuttle had remained available through the life of the ISS the likelihood of success would be greater. The Shuttle is the only vehicle capable of providing the large component up and down mass necessary to ensure replacement of some systems/components and is the only vehicle capable of providing EVA service should that be required.”
It’s been known for over a year that efforts behind the scenes were being drawn up to provide a commercial option via the use of the orbiters themselves, a plan which would have more than halved the operational costs of NASA’s running of the fleet, running two orbiters (Atlantis and Endeavour) around two flights per year.
Sources note this plan could have been activated even after Atlantis came to a stop on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), resulting in the first commercial flight of a shuttle in around 18 months after an official green light.
Hints towards the continuation of such planning could be seen via comments made after STS-135, when NASA managers John Shannon and LeRoy Cain both noted a “do no harm” processing order was in place on both Atlantis and Endeavour, ensuring they could be returned to flight if required.
While the full details of the plan are restricted, it is understood this remains “technically” available, as much as Mr DeCastro notes it would now require a “miracle” from a funding and political standpoint.
“The decision to terminate the Space Shuttle Program was driven by budget constraints, not the health of the vehicles. Endeavour and Atlantis are capable of flying further missions but, by the end of the year, all three vehicles – Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis – will be well into processing for transport to their final destinations in Museums throughout the nation.
“Trying to return them to a flight ready status would be costly and time consuming once that processing is completed.
“If a miracle occurred and funding became available to continue Shuttle Operations, it could be managed by NASA or the private sector. The original NASA contract with USA put into place by NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin had a three phased approach with the last phase having USA operate the Shuttle program as a “commercial” venture selling NASA launch services.
“Needless to say, that Phase of the contract was not well received by some powerful decision makers in Washington so it was never implemented.
“During the past decade, NASA, USA and others have examined many ways to eliminate cost from the Shuttle program and operate it in a “commercial” manner so we know it could have been done.
“But it would have required the approval of many different Washington decision makers, some of whom worried about the risk involved in sending U.S. astronauts into space aboard a “commercially” operated vehicle, some who think the government should indemnify a “commercially” operated human space flight vehicle, some who did not think it would benefit the nation if NASA was still paying the bulk of the cost of the program and finally, some who viewed the Space Shuttles as global symbols of America’s leadership and freedom and did not want our Nation to lose that symbol.”
Political obstruction towards any form of extension was seen via the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), who sided with Mr Griffin during his insistence it was too “risky” – from a Loss Of Vehicle/Crew (LOV/C) standpoint – to extend the Shuttle Program.
ASAP’s remarks drew a rare reaction via Mr DeCastro’s NASA counterpart, John Shannon, who classed ASAP’s comments as “disturbing”. However, ASAP’s stance has never changed – despite a run of amazingly “clean” missions – as seen comments made less than a month ago, when another call to continue flying the Shuttle was strongly dismissed by the advisory body. (An upcoming article will be produced on the ASAP meeting, which was also wary of the commercial companies).
With such staunch opposition, the opportunity for the orbiters to fly again – even via a commercial role – always had a major roadblock from the proposals reaching a level where a serious consideration could be made.
“I could go into lots of details on how to make a “commercial” shuttle program succeed but bottom line there are many ways to make it work and if there were non-NASA customers, the program costs could have been shared,” added Mr DeCastro. “That said, the politics of such a decision blocked it from ever being seriously considered.
“The issue is almost entirely about cost and politics. The Orbiters are fully capable of continued safe operation. It is unfortunate that some have used the argument of “safety” to shorten the life of the Shuttle program. Those of us who have been closely involved in the process know it was a budget decision and a lack of political will to maintain our Nation’s leadership position in Human Space Flight.
“The safety records of the Soyuz compared to the safety records for the shuttle are about even. The most recent Shuttle missions have been among the best ever flown. The Team’s understanding of the Shuttle is better now than at any time in the past.
“The reason to shut down the Shuttle Program is that the Nation doesn’t want to spend any more money on Shuttle. President Bush cancelled the Shuttle Program to fund the Constellation Program. President Obama cancelled the Constellation Program to fund commercial companies.
“It would have been prudent to reinstate the Shuttle Program as part of the cancellation of the Constellation Program to eliminate our gap in America’s ability to access space with human transport.”
The second part of Mr DeCastro’s interview will be published next week.
To read about Atlantis and her sisters – from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:
Click here for the amazing MaxQ Entertainment STS-135 Mission Review Music Video:
(Images: Via Larry Sullivan, MaxQ Entertainment/NASASpaceflight.com, L2 and L2 presentations, NASA.gov, SpaceX, and USA. Further articles on the fleet will be produced during her down processing, driven by L2 – which is continuing to follow the orbiters via a wealth of FRR/PRCB/MER/MMT and SSP documentation/pressentations, videos, images and more.
(As with all recent missions, L2 is providing full exclusive level mission coverage, available no where else on the internet. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)