Lawmakers told shuttle restart questions are years too late

by Chris Bergin

During Wednesday’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Hearing – which focused on the Russian investigation into their recent Soyuz failure – the question on restarting shuttle was once again dismissed out of hand. However, the shrift response, noting the question would have been “interesting” if asked three or four years ago, failed to elaborate on a recent appeal to reconsider the fleet’s retirement.


Wednesday’s hearing by the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics was headlined as a review into the “lessons from the Soyuz Rocket Failure and Return to Flight”, which resulted in positive responses on both the Russian investigation into the failure of the Soyuz – which saw Progress M-12M/44P crash back to Earth – and the effort to return to flight in November.

Those responses came from the high level witness panel, led by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, USAF (Ret.), Chairman, International Space Station Advisory Committee, and Vice Admiral Joseph W. Dyer, USN (Ret.), Chairman, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).

During the hearing, which was led by lawmakers noting it was ironic the failure came one month after the final shuttle mission – with the STS-135 crew in attendance at the hearing – the root cause of the Soyuz problem was noted by Mr Gerstenmaier as related to a low fuel feed to the gas generator – caused by contamination – resulting in the Upper Stage engine failure.

With confirmation the Russians have been cooperative and forthcoming with NASA with regard to the failure investigation – with Mr Gerstenmaier adding they were given overviews first hand, consisting of detailed data, allowing Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) engineers to conduct a background check which resulted in agreement with the Russian findings – questions turned towards the eventual end of the reliance on Soyuz vehicles.

Questions remain on the schedule of handing over to the commercial fleet for US independence – with dates ranging between 2015 and 2017 – although it was stressed by Mr Gerstenmaier the commercial partners are aware they should only fly only when they are ready to fly.

Funding remains the key element of the commercial schedule, while NASA’s two main partners, SpaceX and Orbital, are also working through what was described as “normal start-up transients” – referencing Orbital’s major work at their launch site at Wallops, and SpaceX’s unspecified software issues.

From a cargo perspective, the ISS isn’t racing against deadlines, partly due to the support of other vehicles, such as Europe’s ATV and Japan’s HTV, but also because the final flights of the Shuttle provided the orbital outpost with enough supplies to last until the end of the next calendar year.

Despite this, one lawmaker posed the question on the viability of restarting the shuttle program.

Shuttle Restart:

While General Stafford correctly identified the long pole was the restart of External Tank production at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) – citing a period of two years (as much as claims have been made it would take 18 months) until the tanks reached their flow points to support missions – Admiral Dyer was dismissive, claiming this had been previously looked into and that the question would have only been “interesting” if it had been asked three or four years ago.

This wasn’t a surprising response from the head of the ASAP, who has been steadfast in his opposition to all additional shuttle missions, even the ones which were praised for leaving the ISS in the current acceptable logistics state.

However, a more expansive explanation – at least from a post-retirement standpoint – was forthcoming via the ASAP 2011 Third Quarterly Report, acquired by this site, which quoted an exchange between Scott Spencer, Transportation Management Consultant and co-author of an open letter to the NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, with the ASAP board.

The letter, co-authored by Christopher Kraft, former Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and endorsed by Space Shuttle astronauts Robert Crippen and Frederick Hauck; Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan; the former Director of Mission Operations and Flight Director, Gene Kranz; and other space industry experts, expressed concerns with the Space Shuttle fleet’s retirement from ISS operations.

As noted in the ASAP report, the letter noted concerns with the inability to make repair spacewalks to restore safe and reliable operations if an incident rendered the ISS uninhabitable; and an uncontrolled, catastrophic reentry (with risks to populated areas around the world and the attendant ramifications to foreign relations) from an abandoned ISS.

Ironically, the letter was written before the Soyuz failure and the potential decrew situation.

“Mr Spencer stated that the Space Shuttle fleet is the only spacecraft that is equipped with the airlocks, life support supplies, and robotic arm needed to support the required two-person spacewalking repair crew,” noted the ASAP report into his comments.

“He noted that the letter’s authors and endorsers also believe that the loss of the ISS would destroy the commercial viability of commercial cargo and crew, which is essential for the U.S. return to manned spaceflight if the Shuttles are retired. Keeping the Space Shuttles in service would maintain vital backup contingency for possible risks to U.S. manned spaceflight and the ISS business for the emerging commercial space industry.

“In addition, the letter recommended establishing a new, internationally accepted flight safety criterion: Any object in orbit that is too large for an uncontrolled reentry must have a spacecraft available to support independent extravehicular activity (EVA) repairs.

“With regard to costs associated with the Shuttle fleet, he contended that use of private capital would make it financially and technically feasible to reverse the retirement of the Shuttles and restore U.S. manned spaceflight capabilities in as little as 18 months.”

As such, Mr Spencer requested that the ASAP issue an immediate recommendation for NASA, Congress, and the White House to reverse the decision to retire the Space Shuttles. This request received a negative response from Admiral Dyer.

“In the Panel’s opinion, there was a time for this debate, but it has passed. In the latter part of the last decade, the ASAP highlighted in its reports to both Congress and the NASA Administrator that if the Shuttle’s continuation beyond the planned retirement was to be discussed, the subject needed to be taken up at that time – not only because of knowledge loss, but especially for the second and third tier suppliers of piece parts and critical components, which have now been out of business – well over three years in many cases.

Click here to read further coverage on Shuttle Extension:

“VADM Dyer noted that the Panel understood Mr Spencer’s message and what he highlighted, but in the Panel’s opinion, the time has passed for implementing Shuttle’s continuation.”

In response, Mr Spencer stated that that issue was addressed before the letter was written and endorsed, and it was confirmed that the ability to reconstitute and return Shuttle to flight could be accomplished safely and successfully in about 18 months. That would be a faster return-to-flight than what is anticipated for commercial alternatives. He agreed that there would be a delay, but opined that it would not be technically insurmountable.”

Turning to safety – an issue which Admiral Dyer went on the record to cite concerns about when sat alongside then NASA administrator Mike Griffin at the 2009 House hearing to discuss the initial findings of the Augustine Review into the forward path for Human Space Flight – Mr Spencer was questioned on his evaluations into safe flight.

“Mr Spencer noted that the Shuttle’s ability to continue to fly safely is not without risk. However, in his opinion, the safety of the subsequent spacecraft will not be determined until they pass a 100-flight threshold themselves. In terms of relative risk, tradeoffs would have to be accepted,” the notes recorded.

“He felt that the potentially uncontrolled ISS reentry threat to populated areas around the world is an unacceptable risk. Even if the ISS remains safely in orbit after being abandoned, the hearing and review boards that would result would criticize NASA’s decision to leave the ISS without any way of being restored.”

Mr Spencer also noted that the late call to continue shuttle operations came in part due to the lack of an EVA capability being seen on any of the future vehicles, something he felt no one specifically discussed this before Congress or the ISS partners. Mr Spencer also claimed the ISS was designed and built to be operated, maintained, and de-orbited with the support of the Shuttle’s capability.

It was then noted that plans have been in work for the commercial operation of the Shuttle. These plans have been very secretive due to the investor-related nature of such proposals, although it appears Mr Spencer and his co-authors had been made aware – likely the reason for the passionate pro-shuttle return comments from former Apollo commander Gene Cernan at a recent hearing when he claimed the shuttle was in the prime of its life.

“Plans for commercial operation of Space Shuttles have been proposed, but they were never presented to Congress,” Mr Spencer was noted as claiming. “One aspect is the use of private capital and revenue from countries that would want to have space-faring capabilities, which would ultimately neutralize the additional budget that would be required to fly the Shuttles.

“Interest is already being expressed from capital sources who say that with a 20- to 30-year flight service agreement, a significant amount of private capital could be funded to reconstitute the Shuttle program and its operations and minimize the impact on the NASA budget. When safety is at stake, cost is a lower issue to consider in the criteria.”

ASAP appeared to be unaware of such plans and asked Mr Spencer for further information, to which he noted one example, which related to the United Space Alliance (USA) looking at about $1.5B per year for at least two Shuttle flights per year, as well as a Shuttle being available for launch-on-need capability.

He added that at least $500M would be required up front to restart the parts and tanking line, that private capital could put these funds into place to supplement NASA’s effort, although he wasn’t able to say specifically what return-on-investment rate would be required for investors. However, in the discussions that USA had, they were satisfied with the business case.

Notably, the United Space Alliance were not party to Mr Spencer’s letter and no recent news has been heard on any progression to the commercial shuttle effort.

With Endeavour now signed over to her retirement home in California, Discovery’s wings effectively clipped by the decommissioning of her OMS Pods and the effort to remove Main Propulsion System (MPS) hardware for use on the Space Launch System (SLS), it is likely the question from lawmakers on Wednesday was the last time it will be asked.

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: L2 (animation via L2 sequence set), NASA, USA and Hearing Webcast).

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