Constellation's crawl worries Space Shuttle programme personnel

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Due to slower than expected progress by the US space agency’s Constellation programme skill shortage concerns are already arising at NASA’s Space Shuttle programme, as it waits for the planned year-end confirmation of what Shuttle facilities and assets Constellation needs to have transferred to it.

With $30 million spent so far on the transition between the two space transportation systems, estimated to eventually cost up to $3 billion in total, some Shuttle vendors and supplier contracts have been terminated and production of Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) combustion chambers stopped. Other production lines, including other SSME elements, are currently under review.

But its the agency’s Constellation's progress that is hindering efforts to transition Shuttle assets, according to a paper written by Johnson Space Center’s (JSC) Shuttle planning personnel, for the 43rd Joint Propulsion Conference in Ohio in July: “Systems requirements for Constellation are in formulation and many design contracts have not yet been selected. So [Constellation] needs for [Shuttle] assets are currently uncertain. This...has resulted in the transfer of fewer Shuttle assets to Constellation [by now] than was originally planned.

"This has led to a disconnect between the skill sets required by Shuttle and those required by Constellation; thereby introducing significant risk to the Shuttle programme’s ability to retain critical skills.”

The Shuttle programme has 12 more confirmed missions (and two contingency missions) to fly before the programme ends, with the first orbiter to be retired, Atlantis, being stood down after its STS-125 Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in September 2008.

It is to be followed by Endeavour in the third quarter of 2009 and finally Discovery in the second quarter of 2010 after the last mission.

For the transition Shuttle planners have partitioned the programme into 300 capabilities and as each one reaches its “last need date”, when it is required to support Shuttle operations, there is a review to decide whether it is terminated or transferred.

If NASA were to decide that Shuttle operations were needed beyond 2010 it would have to decide in the next 12-months, before the re-start cost of terminated production becomes prohibitive and to meet the the three-year lead time required to re-instate lost capabilities.

If a post-2010 return to flight decision were made JSC planners expect such costs to have a significant impact on Constellation.