Retire Shuttle Now

Dave Brody advocates retiring the shuttle now - or at least after servicing Hubble one more time.

I've got to agree. A few things are clear to me:

  1. Shuttle is old, and getting older.

  2. Shuttle cannot fly the number of flights that make ISS a going concern (presuming, for the sake of argument, that ISS is worth continuing). Without a crew return vehicle and/or quick shuttle access, you can't put enough people on ISS to make it worthwhile.

  3. Every flight on the current shuttle manifest is an ISS mission.

Shuttle costs $4.8 billion a year. I think the question to ask is:

What could a streamlined project achieve in 5 years with a 20 billion dollar budget? Would the result be cheaper to operate than shuttle?

Given the right approach and design philosophy, I think the answer is a definite yes. Or, to put it another way, what would you get if you gave Burt Rutan $1 billion to develop a vehicle?

If you ask the other question:

What is the chance that NASA can develop a follow-on to shuttle while still flying shuttle?

The answer is "slim to none"

Note that if you do develop a nice follow-on to shuttle - perhaps a vehicle that you can use to, I don't know, perhaps "shuttle" people from the earth to orbit - you can use expendables to launch ISS modules, and then your new vehicle to get people up there for assembly.

Will it happen? Seems pretty unlikely to me. The politics of the situation do not favor the right thing happening, and NASA has always been driven by politics.

(Via Phil Plait's excellent Bad Astronomy)


Comments (8)

  1. Older? says:

    The shuttle has *always* been getting older.

  2. Sean.McLellan says:

    While I agree that the shuttle is an aging machine, I have to disagree with the reasons you state for simply abandoning the shuttle program in favor of a follow-on to the shuttle:

    NASA –IS– currently developing a follow-on to the shuttle while still following the shuttle. It’s called the CEV and is a seperately financed operation. there -will- be a gap between the termination and the start of CEV-based flights and this has already been factored in.

    We learn gobs, and continue to learn from the shuttle flights. This knowledge is essential for incorporation into the next version of the shuttle CEV. NASA dogfoods from existing flights as much as Microsoft does from existing apps.

    NASA is obligated, to finish construction of the international space station — note the international part, ISS and shuttle missions in support of the ISS are a collabrative effort — if you have been following the news you have seen the recent completion of the Columbus space labratory — 10 years of work has been invested into that module, with other investments being made elsewhere in ISS components — the US is part of a larger team and we must uphold our part of the bargin.

    Flying the shuttle keeps our space-flight expertise fresh. Stop coding for 5 years and then come back — I’m sure that you’d forget something or need to get back into the swing of it. Minimizing the downtime between manned space flights should be a goal.

    What I can agree with is that the shuttle is an expensive research program relative to other scientific programs — I’m sure that this will not change with Shuttle V.Next or any future manned space flight for the foreseeable near future, however manned space programs are the most visible and most technically difficult program out there.

  3. kbiel says:

    Retire articles (a, an and the) now!


  4. Bob says:

    How did I stumble into /. ?   🙂

  5. ericgu says:


    I’ve looked at the CEV stuff in the past. Given the constrant drain of shuttle on the overall NASA budget and NASA’s desire to cut back whereever possible *and* the overall federal budgetary environment, I’m afraid that NASA will spend millions doing "studies" for a few years, and then find out that they can’t really afford to build the thing.  I don’t think the public committment is there.

    Stop flying shuttle now, however, and you have a chance.

    You seem to think that that continuing to fly shuttle is a viable alternative to finish ISS. If you look a the number of remaining flights that are on the manifest and compare it with the post-challenger flight rate (never mind the post-columbia flight rate), and I don’t see how things line up. There are 13 assembly flights on the manifest in the first segment, plus another 5 to get to assembly complete.

    Even if you only count 13 as done, I don’t see shuttle being able to fit in that many flights in the next 4 1/2 years (assuming "done by 2010" means the end of 2010).  There has been one fight in the past 3 years. I don’t think NASA believes that they can do it (they only have tentative dates on the first two flights), and I don’t think that our partners think we can do it. At some point you have to make a reasonable projection, go back to your partners, and figure out what to do.

    We aren’t learning anything from shuttle right now. We’re spending incredible amounts of money trying to reengineer a vehicle with a very limited service life because we’re operating on autopilot.

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