Business

Shuttle Era Fades Into Space; NASA's Plans Up in the Air

Endeavor's final 'bittersweet' launch to be viewed by Obama, Rep. Giffords as private ventures ramp up
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: April 28, 2011 12:01 PM
STS-134 Crew at Kennedy Space Center, Endeavour Go for Friday Launch

STS-134 Crew at Kennedy Space Center for Endeavor's Friday launch | Credit: NASA

Friday's scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor marks the penultimate end of an era, and continued uncertainty over what's to follow.

For Florida's Space Coast, the phase-out of the 30-year shuttle program means the beginning of the loss of some 9,000 NASA-related jobs. President Barack Obama's attendance at the launch will be bittersweet, since his administration's space policies have triggered the drawdown of the region's employment.

With the demise of the shuttle program, NASA's astronaut corps will shrink, space ventures will be increasingly privatized, and the United States will depend on Russian rockets to ferry scientists to the International Space Station.

“It will be bittersweet to watch as Endeavor makes its final launch after just 25 missions," said U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, whose district encompasses part of the
Endeavor Space Shuttle

An earlier launch of the Endeavor Space Shuttle | Credit: NASA

Kennedy Space Center.

Space Florida is working to stay in the game by recruiting commercial launch companies to locate near the Kennedy Space Center.

Frank DiBello, head of Space Florida, remains optimistic that commercial crew and cargo programs will bridge the gap to the next generation of deep-space exploration. Earlier this year, his agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Bigelow Aerospace, which intends to launch its first Orbital Space Complex from Cape Canaveral in 2014.

"The next vehicle to carry astronauts into space from Florida’s Space Coast will be a commercial spacecraft -- and this marks a historic change, perhaps the biggest in NASA's 50-year history,” said Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of space companies.

Alexander said America’s space program received a "huge boost" earlier this month when NASA awarded $269 million to four commercial space companies that are developing the capability to take crews to low-Earth orbit commercially: Blue Origin, the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX).

Still, the competition for space-related business will be stiff and increasingly global in the post-shuttle age. Indeed, while Alexander said the $269 million federal contract will create "thousands of jobs across the United States," he could say only that a "significant number" would be in Florida.


ENDEAVORING FOR ONE LAST MISSION


Since Columbia soared into space on April 12, 1981, there have been 133 shuttle flights. Columbia's 22-year run ended disastrously on Jan. 16, 2003, when the orbiter broke up on re-entry, killing seven. On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger blew apart barely a minute into its ascent, also killing seven, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Endeavor, which was built to replace Challenger, made its maiden voyage May 7, 1992. Flying several historic missions, Endeavor provided the platform for the first four spacewalks on a single mission. One was the longest in space history, lasting more than eight hours.

The Endeavor crew also took part in the Commercial Protein Crystal Growth experiment. The research tested the production of protein crystals grown in microgravity.

This year's Endeavor crew is headed by Mark Kelly, husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a gunman in Tucson last January. A recuperating Giffords is scheduled to be at Friday's launch.

Set to lift off at 3:47 p.m., Endeavor is tasked to deliver a $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector and spare parts to the International Space Station.

“I am pleased that so many of my colleagues, including my friend Gabby Giffords, and the first family have made the trip down to the Space Coast to see this marvel of American ingenuity," said Posey, R-Rockledge.

"Watching the shuttle launch is a transformative experience, and I hope this will ignite a passion for human space flight within all Americans and people around the world.”

Assuming NASA's plans stay on track, the shuttle Atlantis will conclude the shuttle program this summer, with another trip to the space station.

Meantime, NASA has turned over space station crew flights to Russia and will subsequently rely on new commercial carriers to deliver U.S. cargo.

“Commercial spaceflight is about innovation, inspiration and jobs,” said Eric Anderson, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“We are really at the threshold of something truly transformative. We’ve seen numerous markets open, ranging from NASA missions and space tourism, to scientific research,” Anderson said.


SHUTTLE: VICTIM OF COST AND AGE

At an average cost of $1.3 billion per mission, the shuttle program helped to fuel the Central Florida economy. In daring feats of scientific engineering, shuttles and their crews completed several crucial missions, rescuing satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope.

But the orbiters never quite lived up to their billing as cost-efficient workhorses.

One early study projected that shuttles would pay for themselves if they flew 39 missions a year between 1978 and 1990. But the shuttles averaged just 4.5 launches per year through 2011, and payload costs of about $10,000 per pound far exceeded initial estimates of $120 per pound.

Whether commercial craft will prove more durable and cost-efficient remains to be seen.

In any event, the aging fleet and dated technology prompted NASA officials to numbers its days. By one calculation, the shuttle program had a 1-in-8 chance of losing another crew if fleet operations were extended.

Looking ahead, NASA aims to build a heavy-lift rocket that can make the trip to the space station, and propel astronauts as far as Mars by 2020. But skeptics question the Obama administration's commitment to deep-space exploration and call the timeline unrealistic.

Amid Washington's raging fiscal battles, one thing seems certain for the foreseeable future: A diminished NASA infrastructure will have fewer astronauts and conduct far fewer space missions.

Congressional funding willing, the final shuttle launch is planned for June 28, when the shuttle Atlantis lifts off for the last time. Upon its return, Atlantis will stay in Florida, where it will remain on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center.

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Contact KenricWard at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (2)

joan7334
6:07PM DEC 14TH 2011
It will be interesting to see what happens to Nasa. Man has to explore, so I hope there is a use for Nasa. Cell Phone Lookup | Outdoor Lighting | Pellet Stoves
RH
5:08PM OCT 16TH 2011
The Shuttle's catastrophic safety record (two of the fleet lost, with all crew) is a testament to the recklessness of the early years of Shuttle development and design, and NASA's continuing stubborn unwillingness -- after not one, but TWO catastrophes -- to recognize and accept that major modifications permitting crew survival were needed before any further flights. That NASA would even think about continuing to operate the shuttles when the odds of another crew loss had reached one-in-eight (just about the odds of Russian Roulette), is proof of the core values driving NASA: the desire to stay in business at any cost -- to the public, or to human life.

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