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With The Last Space Shuttle Flight, Where Does the American Space Program Go Now?

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

July 07, 2011

With The Last Space Shuttle Flight, Where Does the American Space Program Go Now?

By David Sims, TMCnet Contributing Editor

Recently TMC’s Erik Linask (News - Alert) did an interesting podcast with Doug Mohney, a contributor and editor for TMCnet concentrating on the satellite industry.

As Linask said in the podcast, Mohney is scheduled to attend the STS 135 launch – Atlantis, the last planned U.S. space shuttle mission, on Friday, July 8 – the last NASA cargo run to the international space station. Linask wanted to know what the chances were for a good, on-time launch.

Mohney thinks they’re pretty good, “no showstoppers” so far, no major issues that might throw off the launch. Weather is always unpredictable, of course, but as Mohney noted, the weather’s pretty good down in Florida this time of year.

Linask wanted to know what a lot of people want to know – hey, why are we retiring the space shuttle? After all, haven’t we sunk a lot of money in this program? Mohney explained that there are two primary concerns – safety, being the primary one, especially after the loss of Columbia a couple years ago. It’s basically still an R&D program, it’s not state of the art, reliable enough to count on for regularity. Bottom line, every flight is a risky one.

And, of course, cost. It’s a heck of an expensive project, needing thousands of people to support it. NASA claims it costs $450 million per launch, others say it’s closer to $1 billion. Split the difference if you like, you have to justify those numbers somehow, and in its current state the program isn’t doing that.

So safety and cost concerns combined, the shuttle is mothballed for now. It’ll certainly be a heavily-covered event, to be sure. NASA would like to be able to refuel their satellites, which requires inflight refueling, but that’s on the drawing board for now.

And if the shuttle’s stranded at the space station? “The Russians will save us,” Mohney remarked, noting that the crew taking the mission are physically short enough to fit in a Soyuz space capsule, so maybe he’s only half-joking.

Mohney said there are plenty of commercial cargo carriers under consideration – and under contract – to keep the station supplied. And once the space shuttle shuts down, the Russians have jacked up the prices on their monopoly of personnel transport to the space station from $50 million to $63 million. What a surprise. America is planning to launch crew transport, Boeing (News - Alert) and other companies say they can too in a few years.

Linask asked the $64 question – is America ceding leadership in international space with the mothballing of the space shuttle? Mohney says we’re not leaving the field, what’s happening now is that NASA’s taking a long, hard look at the program. The Russians and Chinese can’t touch American sophistication or leadership, Mohney says. Basically we can pause to take stock of the program without giving up any ground.

And as Mohney says, “Frankly, it should have been done about a decade ago.”

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David Sims is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of David’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for TMCnet here.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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