The End of the Space Shuttle: What Got Us Here

Source: The Denver Post

As some of you probably know by now, the Space Shuttle Discovery made its final flight today, being transported to Washington D.C. for display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 marked the last spaceflight of the orbiter fleet. Watching Discovery being transported kind of hammers home the fact that this is the end of an era (as brought up by another Astro 201 blogger). Since this is such a pivotal time in space exploration for our country, I thought it would be good to go back and look up the events that set in motion the retirement of the shuttle fleet.

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia catastrophically disintegrated over the southern U.S. sky while returning home after completion of STS-107. It was the second accident resulting in fatalities for the shuttle program (the first being STS-51-L Challenger). The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was convened to investigate what caused the the destruction, comment on the state of the program as a whole, and outline any improvements needed. The CAIB determined that the shuttle did not need to be scrapped. However, it did make one key recommendation: given the age and wear on the orbiters, if the shuttle was to be used beyond 2010,  it needed to undergo recertification.

NASA had already looked into retiring the fleet before the 2003. Crucial to understanding the current situation is that the administration always did so with the feasibility of replacement in mind. For exampling, with all of the setbacks to the Lockheed-Martin X33 (and the VentureStar), NASA actually moved the retirement year to 2020 and commissioned studies to identify what had to be done to create a suitable successor to the orbiters. In light of the Columbia disaster, the CAIB stated that it was “… in the nation’s best interest to replace the Shuttle as soon as possible as the primary means for transporting humans to and from Earth orbit.”

Nearly a year after the Columbia disaster, President Bush presented his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). For this new plan, The Bush administration used the CAIB’s 2010 benchmark as their own mandatory deadline for retirement of the shuttle fleet. Both the CAIB and the Bush administration recognized the shuttle’s importance in the construction of the International Space Station. The CAIB’s 2010 deadline stemmed from the fact that the ISS was expected to be complete by that year. Yet, this turned out to be unfeasible. The difference between the VSE and the CAIB recommendations was that the CAIB did not explicitly advocate for bringing an end to the program in 2010. Recertification may have been a hassle for NASA, but it sill left the door open for the shuttle to keep flying. The CAIB’s goal in pushing for recertification was that it would introduce a formal process for extending the lifetime of the shuttle fleet. The VSE did not share this attitude of flexibility. Essentially, the Bush administration’s plane forced NASA’s hand to abandon its existing operational launch system, as  NASA’s receiving of budget outlined in the VSE required termination of the shuttle program.

Side note: President Obama had to extend the shuttle’s service by a year due to delays in shuttle missions and after it became clear that NASA needed the extra time.

The result was NASA, for the first time in its history, bringing an end to a program without a viable successor in the works. To put the matter in perspective, NASA had begun studies into developing the shuttle back in 1969, during the height of the Apollo program. In 1972, Nixon signed off on allowing NASA to develop its new space transportation system. The Constellation program, the intended successor to the shuttle, was conceived of in a time when the agency was preoccupied with disaster recovery. It never received the budget it needed, and the combination of planning setbacks and monetary concerns led to cancellation of its funding under the Obama administration.

Currently, NASA’s future plans for manned space exploration revolve around the Space Launch System. Unmanned missions are slated for launch in December of 2017. Until then, our astronauts will have to turn to other space agencies, such as Russia’s, to leave the confines of Earth.

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One response to “The End of the Space Shuttle: What Got Us Here

  • cassiemych

    This might be terrible, but I didn’t actually know that the Discovery Space Shuttle made its final journey today. Because of that, I found it extremely interesting to read about how a series of different events can lead to NASA deciding not to send more astronauts into space in the near future. Like you said, it’s an end of an era. 😦

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