By Rob Coppinger
Special to msnbc.com Special to msnbc.com
updated 2/3/2011 9:09:27 AM ET 2011-02-03T14:09:27
Share Print Font: + - NASA is considering a plan to keep the space
shuttle Endeavour in flight-like condition after its last scheduled
mission, a move that could lead to its transformation into a
privatized spaceship rather than a museum piece.
Endeavour’s continued operation through 2017 is part of a proposal
that could receive millions of dollars in development funds from the
space agency next month.
The proposal — called Commercial Space Transportation Service, or CSTS
— would use Endeavour as well as a sister shuttle, Atlantis, to fly
two missions a year from 2013 to 2017 at an annual cost of $1.5
billion. United Space Alliance, the contractor that currently manages
the shuttle program on NASA’s behalf, has offered the proposal for the
second round of funding from the space agency’s Commercial Crew
Development initiative, also known as CCDev 2.
NASA could award as much as $200 million in the second round of the
CCDev initiative. During the first round, the agency distributed $50
million in stimulus funds to five companies to advance the development
of crew-capable replacements for the shuttles.
Some of the recipients of first-round funding — such as the Boeing Co.
and Sierra Nevada Corp. — have made proposals for second-round funding
as well. The second-round competitors also include SpaceX and Orbital
Sciences, which are already receiving NASA funds to build spacecraft
for transporting cargo to the space station.
United Space Alliance is the only venture proposing to keep the
shuttles operating rather than retiring them this year, as currently
When asked about the USA plan, NASA spokesman Michael Curie said in an
e-mailed response that the space agency would not "comment at this
time on proposals received as part of CCDev 2."
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the CCDev 2 decision is pending, NASA has decided to study the option
of keeping Endeavour in a flight-like condition at one of Kennedy
Space Center’s three Orbiter Processing Facilities, according to
documents obtained by msnbc.com. This study is to examine what
personnel and funding would be needed to retain Endeavour instead of
giving it up.
For now, NASA is sticking with its plan to send its three space
shuttles to museums after their final flights. The schedule calls for
Discovery to fly its finale in February, followed by Endeavour in
April, and Atlantis in June. After the shuttles' retirement, the space
agency would depend on Russia to send American astronauts to the space
station, at least until the spacecraft developed under the CCDev
program are ready to fly.
Curie told msnbc.com that the Endeavour study was not related to CCDev
"Our baseline plan continues to be to process the shuttle orbiters for
retirement and prepare them for display after their last flights," he
said Thursday in his e-mail. "As a what-if budget exercise, we are
looking at what it would cost if a recipient was not ready to take an
orbiter right away, and if we wanted to keep an orbiter in long-term
storage for potential engineering analysis."
Some see no rush to retire
Sources familiar with discussions within NASA’s shuttle managing
department, the Space Operations Mission Directorate, have told
msnbc.com that there’s no rush to retire the shuttles. Even though
Discovery’s final mission is only a few weeks away, the directorate
asked for a detailed cost analysis for retiring that shuttle only in
January. No such requests have yet been made for Atlantis or
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Endeavour is NASA’s newest shuttle. It entered service in 1992 as a
replacement for the shuttle Challenger, which was lost along with its
crew in an explosion 25 years ago. NASA gave Endeavour its most recent
major upgrade in 2005.
The decision to look into retaining Endeavour, and the evaluation of
the commercial space shuttle proposal, both come at a time when the
future of NASA’s human spaceflight effort is in flux. Congress has not
yet approved the NASA appropriations bill for the current fiscal year,
and instead the agency is operating on an extension of last year’s
Last September, Congress passed legislation that called for NASA to
develop a new launch system capable of sending crews into space by
2016. In a preliminary report submitted to Congress last month, NASA
said it could not meet the timetable and budget laid out in the
Weeks before lawmakers took action, the United Space Alliance briefed
the space agency on the commercial shuttle proposal. “We discussed the
concept with NASA last summer, as part of a larger discussion on how
best to support the International Space Station,” USA spokeswoman
Tracy Yates said.
Curie confirmed that a group of contractors provided the agency with a
briefing in August. The contractors included United Space Alliance and
the Boeing Co., one of the partners in the USA joint venture. One
outcome of those discussions was that USA submitted its proposal for
CCDev 2 funding.
If USA receives funding, the venture would conduct a study called the
Commercial Shuttle Operations Architecture, which would last for six
months, from April through September. The study would be aimed at fine-
tuning USA’s earlier cost estimates for a commercial shuttle operation
with a workforce in Texas and Florida. Such an operation would be
covered by Federal Aviation Administration rules, would share
facilities with other commercial companies to cut down on expenses,
and would offer launches to NASA under a fixed-price contract.
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woman, a safe exit from Egypt USA’s current estimated price tag of
$1.5 billion per year would represent a substantial drop from previous
funding levels, which have seen shuttle program costs rise as high as
$4 billion per year.
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Space Alliance says its plan would take advantage of shuttle
infrastructure and a workforce already in place. Some shuttle
production lines would have to be restarted — for example, the
operation that builds the shuttle’s external fuel tanks. But USA says
the first commercial shuttle flights could take place in 2013. That
would beat the 2016 deadline specified in last year’s legislation, as
well as the development schedule laid out by SpaceX and USA’s other
However, it’s not clear whether keeping the shuttles in operation
would make the most economic sense for NASA. Henry Hertzfeld, a space
policy expert at George Washington University, said using capsule-type
vehicles such as the ones proposed by SpaceX and other companies would
likely be cheaper than continuing to fly space shuttles.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said a Dragon capsule capable of carrying
up to seven passengers could be developed at a cost of $1 billion over
three years. Seats on the Dragon could be sold to NASA at a price of
$20 million per seat, Musk has said.