The end for the Shuttle?

Flight International’s spaceflight specialist Rob Coppinger writes:

It was flawless, they said, a flawless launch and a flawless vehicle. Sadly that viewpoint was utterly flawed. Twenty four hours after the launch and NASA is back to square one with a grounded shuttle fleet and another external tank (ET) problem.

 Ironically one of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s recommendations, to end tank foam shedding, was not met by NASA but the agency decided to fly anyway.

tank low res.jpg

And they admit they came close to destroying another orbiter when the ET’s protuberance air load (PAL) ramp foam came off. NASA deputy shuttle programme manager Wayne Hale admitted in a press conference Wednesday that if the PAL foam had come off earlier in the mission, “we think it would have been really bad”.  It’s taken two and a half years to try to solve the original debris shedding problem fixed. They didn’t. The big question is, how much longer?

Hale offered one potential solution. Replace the foam, which is there to protect cable trays, with a metal ramp that is bolted on. But no doubt that is easier said than done. The orbiter fleet is supposed to be retired in 2010. The vehicles are needed to loft modules of the International Space Station (ISS) into place. The US has international agreements committing it to launch European Space Agency, Russian and Japanese ISS modules.

If it can’t do that NASA has a major international crisis. These other agencies have undertaken work for the US space agency on the understanding that they get the modules launched for free in return.

International relations aside, is this the end of the Shuttle? No.

It will fly again, but we can’t expect much more than a dozen flights.

A return to flight in 2007, and if there are no problems, then perhaps three or four launches a year until retirement on 30 September 2010 – rumoured to be Griffin’s unofficial retirement date. The immediate beneficiaries of this situation are the Russians. Grounded shuttles mean Russia must continue to launch all crew and supplies to the ISS.

The Russian Federal Space Agency has already said the US must start paying for this logistics service following two years of Russia bearing the burden since Columbia’s loss. Another outcome will probably be the acceleration of the development of the unmanned heavy lift shuttle derived launch vehicle. Flight International reported in June that NASA was looking at using such a vehicle, which consists of the ET, shuttle solid rocket boosters and an unmanned expendable cargo pod, to be used for ISS assembly.

 In the wake of the Paris air show the future of the world’s space programmes seemed uncertain.This week that situation got worse for NASA. But this is the agency for which, “failure is not an option”.

Can the Shuttle continue? Tell us what you think.


Technorati tag:

Leave a Reply