March 25, 2003
NASA To Extend Space Shuttle Life To 2020 Or Later

NASA director of shuttle and space station programs Michael C. Kostelnik says NASA plans to keep operating the shuttle at least until 2020. Since the Shuttle will continue to be an inherently dangerous design one way to reduce the casualty rate will be to automate the shuttle's operation so that astronauts do not have to die when it crashes.

Reducing the risk might require eliminating the crew altogether, Kostelnik said. The shuttle will be needed as a "workhorse," he said, but it might not need to carry people. "Perhaps even flying a robotic shuttle in those out years would not be out of the question," he said.

To switch the Shuttle over to an automated robotic cargo delivery system will require the development of the orbital space plane to carry astronauts into space.

Kostelnik said that in the future -- once an orbital space plane is a reality and can ferry astronauts to and from the international space station -- NASA would have the option of flying the shuttle only as a cargo vessel.

The problem is that the orbital space plane that will be designed to more safely and cheaply (at least if they don't botch the design job) carry astronauts will not be ready for at least 12 years.

The space agency's long-term plans call for the shuttle fleet to be active at least until a "next- generation launch technology" -- which is in the earliest stages -- makes its first flight some 12 years from now.

NASA does not want to give up operating the Shuttle because NASA does not want to give up operating the International Space Station. Of course, operating ISS and Space Shuttle (especially since now the Shuttle will need to have a lot more spent on it to improve its safety) eats up so much budget money that the money left over for the Orbital Space Plane won't be enough to fund its rapid development.

The Orbital Space Plane is not all that radical anyway. It will still be boosted into space via chemical rockets. Space launch of humans will remain very expensive even once the Orbital Space Plane is operational. Do not expect NASA to revolutionize space flight. It has some big white elephants to tend and feed and doesn't have budget allocations for radical advances.

The upshot of all this is that NASA is going to continue to be irrelevant to the future of humanity in space. Will that always be the case? There is one scenario under which that could change. China could get such a big space program going that the US might decide there's a serious national security issue at stake and that something big ought to be done about it quickly. NASA could be funded to do more radical work on much more ambitious projects. If this sounds far-fetched just remember that some day pigs will fly with the help of genetic engineering.

Another way that NASA could regain its relevancy would be if it lost its remaining shuttles in accidents. Then it might be pressured into pursuing bigger steps forward in space launch designs. Of course, if the other shuttles were lost NASA still might just decide to use available technology to design a safer but still very expensive Shuttle replacement.

Ultimately human space travel is going to be enabled by advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology. Nanotech advances made for other reasons will provide stronger and cheaper materials for building space launch vehicles. Biotech will make it easier to modify human bodies to live in low gravity and to grow food and structures for Mars colonies. The broader economy will drive the development of enabling technologies for space travel and space exploration far more than anything NASA is likely to do.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 March 25 04:58 PM  Airplanes and Spacecraft

Dalibor Sramek said at March 27, 2003 6:13 AM:

I believe the only reasonable way to estabilish solid human presence in space is some kind of space elevator. See or

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