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NASA Space Science

Private Space Shuttle Flights 244

An anonymous reader writes "It has recently been suggested that when the Space Shuttles are retired after their final flights this year, they may continue operations under the funding of private enterprise. United Space Alliance is considering a $1.5 billion per year proposal to take the fleet private. The aging spacecraft have been flying for close to 30 years, and NASA is retiring them for good reason. Is it safe to continue flights in private hands?"
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Private Space Shuttle Flights

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  • by hellfire ( 86129 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `vdalived'> on Monday February 07, 2011 @06:39PM (#35131228) Homepage

    Space travel is dangerous in general. Until private space travel takes off (no pun intended) we won't have a good set of figures to find out which is relatively safer, private space travel or public, and even then, private travel will have made it's way on the shoulders of publicly funded research into what was basically unknown until people were willing to take a chance.

    I'm sure we can create a relatively useful and beneficial private space industry going with open minded entrepreneurs willing to cooperate with straightforward and intelligent government oversight. I hope that doesn't get in the way of summary's anti-business rail and the parent comment's anti-government hard-on rage he was going for.

  • Re:Big RC tugs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @06:47PM (#35131322) Homepage
    Payload to orbit of STS is in the range of quite a few other launchers. Nothing "nice" about system which ends up more expensive than them, and wastes ~90 tons of mass to LEO on airframe.
  • Re:Safe? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Un pobre guey ( 593801 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @06:55PM (#35131408) Homepage
    Ah yes, the "private enterprise does things better than the government" meme. It is unfounded, of course, but sounds really good. This time, it's being applied to 30 year old space vehicles built for the government then operated and maintained by them (two of which suffered catastrophic failure, BTW). By some magical force (the Invisible Hand, perhaps), private enterprise will not only make them work better than ever before with a truly spartan budget, but with wealthy civilian passengers onboard!

    1) Propose some bullshit idea to privatize a government function
    2) Shut eyes really tight and repeat some capitalistic mumbo jumbo (any one will do)
    3) ???
    4) Profit!
  • Re:$1.5 billion? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mangu ( 126918 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @07:01PM (#35131448)

    Just imagine what Scaled Composites would be able to do with $1.5 billion!

    I was thinking of Ariane [], those $1.5 billion would buy twenty flights, each sending twenty tons to low-earth orbit.

  • by Alereon ( 660683 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @07:05PM (#35131476)
    The SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft have already conducted successful orbital and reentry operations and will be performing resupply missions to the ISS this year. As you mentioned, there's also the Soyuz for crew exchange missions until the Dragon is man-rated, and both the European Space Agency and Japanese Space Agency will be operating unmanned resupply operations, in addition to the Russian Prospekt missions. The reality is that we're not suffering from any gap between our space transport needs and available capabilities, attempts to convince the American public otherwise are simply transparent cash-grabs by the military industrial complex (Boeing, Lockmart, and the other contractors that make most of their money building things that go boom), supported by Republican congressmen in love with pork.
  • by steveha ( 103154 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @07:17PM (#35131604) Homepage

    There is no way a private company could keep the shuttles flying and make any sort of profit.

    Even when they were brand-new, the shuttles needed an insane amount of work to service them after each flight. According to Henry Spencer, in postings on, it took a "standing army" of NASA employees months of work to prep a shuttle for the next launch. The main engines need to be pulled and overhauled, tiles need to be inspected and damaged tiles replaced, and I don't even remember all the details.

    I remember he said it takes a million signatures to launch a shuttle. As in: work gets done, someone runs down a checklist and makes sure everything is good, and someone signs off that the work is complete. That, times a million.

    As others have noted here, the payload capacity of the shuttle is rather large, which isn't actually that useful most of the time. On the other hand, the shuttle can only reach a low orbit, which is also not ideal. So basically a shuttle flight can lift a stupidly large payload to low orbit, then it needs man-centuries of maintenance before it can do it again.

    Adding spice and excitement is the chance the shuttle will be destroyed during the mission. (The people on board might or might not die: historically each shuttle lost has killed everyone, but one of the exciting failure modes would be for the landing gear to fail and the shuttle skid to a stop, never to fly again.) Henry Spencer estimated that the shuttle is only 99% likely to avoid being destroyed, which is terrible odds. (I believe he made that estimate after Challenger and before Columbia.) The shuttle has had 132 missions and two catastrophes; I have no reason to think it has gotten safer since then. (Yes, lessons have been learned and applied, so I shouldn't expect the exact same catastrophes again. But what other catastrophes might happen with an aging space shuttle?) Also according to Henry Spencer, if two tires on any single landing gear arm blow out during landing, that would total the shuttle (probably without hurting any astronauts). That has never happened, but one tire blowing out has, more than once.

    As many have said for many years, what we really need is a "space pickup truck". There are times you want a giant moving van, but much of the time you are better off with the smaller capacity pickup truck.

    What we really need is a launch vehicle that can take a small payload (one single ton would be plenty for many useful purposes) into orbit, then land, be minimally serviced, and then do it again tomorrow. You could ferry people and supplies up and down quickly and easily. You could have one or even several on stand-by to launch in case of some sort of emergency. You could send large things up in modules, and connect the modules once in orbit.

    The ideal reusable vehicle would be a "single stage to orbit" (SSTO) design. You want your space pickup truck to have as low a total cost of operations as possible, so having pieces fall off it during launch is a complication you want to avoid.

    If you must, do a two-stage to orbit. Some serious proposals have called for two manned vehicles, docked, with one lifting the other part-way up and then a pilot flying it back down while the other vehicle goes the rest of the way to orbit.

    I believe that, when we get our "space pickup truck", it will have been developed by private industry. Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceX, XCOR, and various others are trying various things, and after enough generations of prototypes, somebody will get an affordable system for moving things and people in and out of space.

    Many things become possible once you have cheap and reliable access to space. For example, if you want to send people to Mars, you would do well to ship fuel, oxygen, and other supplies up in a bunch of little cheap flights, rather than trying to do the Apollo thing of having a complete and self-contained system launch from Earth.


  • Keep one in space (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tekrat ( 242117 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @07:18PM (#35131614) Homepage Journal

    Every illustration, poster, image, of a "space station" produced from 1975 to 2007 showed a docked shuttle. Usually it was some "expanded" version of the ISS, and there was always a shuttle in those images, docked.

    I propose we keep one in space. Send it up unmanned, remotely piloted (or send up a single pilot, who's return flight will be provided by the Russians), and keep it docked to the ISS.

    This way, the ISS has an "emergency boat" or escape craft if something goes extremely wrong. Furthermore, as Apollo 13 showed us, it's good to have an extra "lifeboat" that the crew could evacuate to if there's a problem aboard the ISS that can't easily be fixed.

    It could be both an escape pod and an extra shelter. We know that seven people can fit on the shuttle's living quarters and you can bet the folks up there would appreciate the extra space.

    Plus is has it's own O2 scrubbers, fuel cells, and could even be used as a tug to boost the ISS into a better orbit someday. Why throw it away? That makes no sense if we've already got people up there.

  • Re:Keep one in space (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rorschach1 ( 174480 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @07:56PM (#35132072) Homepage

    I'm no expert here, but it's my understanding that the shuttles really aren't intended for such long-duration use. Even the Soyuz capsules have a limited shelf-life. You've got cryogenic liquids powering the fuel cells, corrosive propellants in the thrusters, and who knows what else that won't keep. And I'd assume that you have to keep the temperature inside regulated to some degree, which might take a significant amount of power.

    In short, that's a whole lot of complex hardware to maintain for a task that could be accomplished by something much simpler - like the existing Soyuz capsules.

  • Re:30 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by k6mfw ( 1182893 ) on Monday February 07, 2011 @08:28PM (#35132428)

    30 years ago I remember getting up really early (very am) to watch STS-1 on April 10, but flight was delayed because onboard computers would not sync with ground-based computers at T-20 min. Launch team recycled the countdown and tried numerous times but no go (and couldn't understand how this happened in spite of numerous launch simulations). So there we were of about 30 of us in a math class at Cal Poly trying our best to stay awake because we all got up early to watch the Shuttle.

    STS-1 was rescheduled for April 12 (20 years to the day of the first human spaceflight!) and wow it just leaped right off the pad unlike the slow climber of Saturn V while it cleared the tower. When in space, STS-1 commander John Young said "wow, these are some windows!" in reference to how big they are compared to his previous flights on Apollo and Gemini. And his rightseat partner, Bob Crippen, "whoever said space was black was really right."

    When Columbia was coming in for a landing we all gathered in a dorm room (too much ghosting on TV sets in other rooms), someone said, "I bet those Russians are biting their nails!" There was that same math class and the instructor knew nobody would attend because they all wanted to watch the landing. To force us to attend class, he covered material not in the book but would be on the final exam. Arrg! But class would be over 20 minutes before scheduled touchdown. I setup my bicycle aimed directly toward the dorm, one click away on the lock, a basket for me to throw the lock and chain into, and zoom off at warp speed.

    Later that day (NBC had continuous coverage for hours!) there were festivities include both Young and Crippen at the podium with their wives, crowds cheering, governor Jerry Brown presented both astronauts with The Order of California medals. John Young said, "Shuttle is important for defense and science. We are on our way to the stars and we are proud to be part of these first steps" (or something to that effect) but I remember at the time NASA wanted to not talk much about the science aspect as they wanted to further its business purpose of Shuttle being the only launch vehicle for everything from people to communications satellites.

    I still have a major newspaper with only one big photo of the launch and headline, "Hail Columbia!" So what you all slashdotters doing this April 12?

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