Shuttle leader says extending program still feasible
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: March 10, 2010
Clarifying what he described as "a big misconception," the shuttle program manager said Tuesday that NASA's vendors could restart production and deliver the parts and hardware needed to extend shuttle flights beyond the current September retirement target.
"The real issue the agency and the nation has to address is the expense," said John Shannon, the shuttle program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"The shuttle program is fairly expensive, we burn at about a $200 million a month rate. So that gives you a base of about $2.4 billion a year that it would require to continue flying the shuttle, almost irregardless of how many flights you flew during the year. ... There's just a base cost there you have to pay to keep the program in business. Where that money comes from is the big question."
NASA currently plans to fly just four more shuttle missions between now and the end of September. Discovery is up next, scheduled for launch April 5, followed by Atlantis on May 14, Endeavour on July 29 and Discovery for a final time on Sept. 16.
Launch dates for the final three flights may change depending on payload processing issues and other factors, but the orbiters and mission assignments are expected to be flown as currently planned.
The shuttle retirement date was set by the Bush administration, which announced plans in 2004 to complete the International Space Station by the end of fiscal 2010, to then shut down the shuttle program and to develop a new family of rockets to carry astronauts to and from the space station and eventually back to the moon.
But the Obama administration's 2011 budget request would cancel NASA's Constellation moon program and turn over flights to and from low-Earth orbit to private industry. With some 9,000 shuttle- and Constellation-related job losses expected in Florida alone, congressional criticism has been widespread, with some lawmakers calling for an extension of the shuttle program until new rockets become available.
President Obama plans to visit Florida's Space Coast in April for a conference to discuss his administration's new approach to manned spaceflight.
"A foundational element of this new strategy is to invest in the development of a targeted set of inter-related technologies and capabilities that can help us travel from the Earth's cradle to our nearby solar system neighborhood in a more effective and affordable way, thus laying the foundation to support journeys to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually to Mars," the White House said in a statement."
Extending the shuttle program would not appear to be an option, but looming job losses have prompted widespread discussion. Asked about extension possibilities Tuesday, Shannon said the real issue was money, not restarting the shuttle's complex supply chain.
"There's a big misconception out there (regarding) the shuttle supply chain, (people believe) they're all out of business because we're ending the program and to get them back would be this enormous effort," Shannon said.
"It's not like there are small companies or small businesses out there that made shuttle widget number five and now that we're not flying the shuttle anymore, they're out of business. For the most part, our suppliers and vendors are major companies."
As an example, Shannon cited North Carolina Foam Industries, which supplies the foam insulation that covers the shuttle's external tank. The company is a major player in the commercial insulation business, Shannon said, and "shuttle is a small part of their business."
"Because the shuttle is going out of business does not mean that those companies are gone," he said.
Last week, in the wake of congressional discussion of a possible shuttle extension, "we kicked off ... a study for each of the program elements to go out and physically touch base with each of the vendors and the sub vendors and the entire supply chain and understand where we might have some issues if we were to restart the program.
"I get those results on Thursday and we'll formally write that up and submit it to headquarters," Shannon said. "But there's this misconception that there's all this big supply chain that was shuttle specific only. Shuttle is for the most part a sideline business for these major companies that support the actual program."
Another issue for shuttle extension is recertification. In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the accident review board concluded that if NASA wanted to fly the shuttle past 2010, the vehicle should be recertified, a costly and complex procedure intended to make sure the aging spaceplanes can be safely maintained and operated.
While not required given the decision to retire the fleet this year, recertification-class reviews have been underway since 2005.
"We've pretty much, over the last five years, gone through the entire orbiter vehicle to make sure we're operating within the environment that the different orbiter pieces were originally certified for," Shannon said. "We feel like we've addressed recertification.
"We did not stop there. We continued and had meetings with aging vehicle experts to understand from an aviation standpoint what types of things do they typically find, what types of things do they typically look at, we benchmarked things like the B-52 bomber, things that have been flying for greater than 50 years. And as a result of those meetings, we added 23 additional inspection points into each of the orbiters that we hit every time we turn the vehicle around."
While he does not see any insurmountable problems with the shuttle's supply line or flight certification, Shannon said it would take about two years to build new external tanks and other hardware.
"We've addressed the orbiter recertification issues, we are addressing the supply line issues," he said. "I don't expect to find any problems there. The real issue we would have is just in manufacturing. While you have a supply chain, while you can get a workforce back to go and build things like external tanks, there would be some type of a gap. Right now we estimate that gap would be about two years from when we're told (to start) to when we'd have the first external tank rolling off the assembly line.
"You could address that in many different ways, by slowing down the shuttle program until that two years was up or you'd just accept that gap and do other things."
That leaves the issue of money to pay the thousands of workers required to maintain and process space shuttles for launch. Even with a reduced flight rate, Shannon said, the cost would be roughly what it is today, or about $2.4 billion a year.
Shannon did not say whether he personally favored an extension, telling reporters "we just provide the data, and we'll let the nation go off and decide what they would like this team to go do."
Even so, he added, "from a personal standpoint, I just think it's amazing that we're headed down a path where we're not going to have any vehicles at all to launch from the Kennedy Space Center for an extended period of time. To give up all the lessons learned, the blood, sweat and tears we've extended to get the space shuttle to the point where it is right now, where it's performing so magnificently.
"But it's a money discussion," he said. "If we don't have the resources to do that and to continue to logistically supply the space station, then I understand that, it's the path we've been on and we'll take this team and try our hardest to seed them out to either the commercial sector or into whatever NASA is going to do next to bring those lessons learned ... to try and make the next program as successful as possible."