There’s an essay over at America Space worth a read, but a couple paragraphs are misleading:
Although President Obama inherited the decision to retire the space shuttle by the previous administration, he also inherited the rest of the Constellation program as well. The newly appointed President chose to terminate both programs, however, while apparently failing or not caring to properly take into account the U.S. dependency on Russia that would result by this decision for launching American astronauts to the ISS for many years in a row until new replacement vehicles could be developed. Since the retirement of the shuttle was tied to the development of the Constellation program, a cancellation of the latter should prompt a re-thinking of the decision for the former, something that ultimately didn’t happen. The space shuttles were finally decommissioned following the STS-135 flight in July 2011.
With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to and from the International Space Station is currently onboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. That point was also stressed by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) during a debate with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden at the recent hearing for the NASA Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, held by the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “When the Space Shuttle was mothballed, President Obama was President of the United States. He could have made the decision to have continued to use the Space Shuttle, or he could have made the decision to keep it available in the event of an emergency. He chose not to,” said Brooks.
Obama didn’t choose to terminate the Shuttle. There was no choice, because that decision had been made years before, and production of key components and facilities needed to make them started to be shut down before he took office. It would have taken years and billions to restart that capability. In fact, he extended the program to the summer of 2011, past the original planned retirement in 2010.
The retirement of the Shuttle wasn’t tied to the development of Constellation. Even in 2004, before the ruinous Constellation project even began, the plan was for a three-year gap, because the so-called Crew Exploration Vehicle (which later morphed into Orion) wasn’t expected to be available until 2014. When Constellation was canceled, Shuttle’s retirement already being a fait accompli, the Obama administration planned to get Commercial Crew going by 2015, but as the author notes, continuous underfunding by Congress has slipped that out to 2017 (officially, anyway, on NASA’s business-as-usual snail-like development schedule). So Brooks is either lying, or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can’t keep something like the Shuttle “available in the event of an emergency.” That’s a demonstration of profound ignorance of how it worked. It would have cost billions per year, even if we hadn’t shut down the production lines, and it would have been unsafe to fly it with no regular tempo, a point I make in my book:
It should be noted that NASA currently plans only two flights for the SLS—one in 2017 to demonstrate the 70-ton capability, and one with a crew in 2021, to . . . somewhere. They have said that, when operational, it may only fly every couple of years. What are the implications of that, in terms of both cost and safety?
Cost wise, it means that each flight will cost several billion dollars, at least for those first two flights. If, once in operation, it has a two- or three-billion-dollar annual budget (a reasonable guess based on Shuttle history), and it only flies every couple of years, that means that each subsequent flight will cost anywhere from four to six billion dollars.
From a safety standpoint, it means that its operating tempo will be far too slow, and its flights far too infrequent, to safely and reliably operate the system. The launch crews will be sitting around for months with little to do, and by the time the next launch occurs they’ll have forgotten how to do it, if they haven’t left from sheer boredom to seek another job.
As a last-ditch effort to try to preserve the Shuttle in 2010, some suggested that it be maintained until we had a replacement, but to fly it only once per year to save money. The worst part of such a proposal would have been the degree to which the system would have been even less safe, given that it was designed for a launch rate of at least four flights per year. It was unsafe to fly it too often (as NASA learned in the 80s as it ramped up the flight rate before Challenger), and it would be equally so to fly it too rarely. NASA’s nominal plans for SLS compound this folly, which is magnified by the fact that both internal NASA studies and independent industry ones have demonstrated that there is no need for such a vehicle to explore beyond earth orbit (existing launchers could do that job just fine, with orbital mating and operations), and it is eating up all the funding for systems, such as landers and orbital propellant storage facilities, that are necessary. All of this is just more indication that actually accomplishing things in space is the lowest priority for Congress (and unfortunately, the space agency itself, otherwise, the administrator would be more honest with the appropriators on the Hill).
There another point in the essay to be addressed:
Even if Commercial Crew was fully funded tomorrow, the participating private companies would still have to go through the same development and certification process for their spacecraft, and their launch date would still be two years into the future, at the very least. “Engineering is engineering,” said Kelly O. Humphries, News Chief at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Texas, during an interview for Motherboard earlier last week. “We’re working with commercial companies to make sure everything is done properly so the spacecraft will interact properly with the International Space Station. You’ve got to do things the right way, to make sure things are safe for people.”
Note that the spacecraft (at least the Dragon) already “interacts properly with the ISS.” That was proven out with commercial
crewcargo. What they’re doing now is “certifying” that it is “safe” to carry crew to and from it. But as I note in my book, “safe” and “unsafe” are not meaningful words, absent quantification. If Congress told NASA they had to put up crew on a Dragon on Monday, they’d figure out a way to do it. If we had to get American crew into space on American vehicles this year, we could do it.
What would the probability of loss of crew be? Who knows? If you look at the Falcon 9 over all (eight successful flights with no failures), it now has a Bayesian reliability approaching 90%. NASA flew to the moon on Apollo 8 on the very first manned Saturn V flight, when the previous flight test had been a disaster. That NASA chooses to continue business as usual in ending its reliance on the Russians shows just how unimportant the issue is.