Ken Kremer for NASA Watch 29 May 2010, Kennedy Space Center
In another sign that NASA's space shuttle program is winding down to retirement, the very last segments for the shuttles mighty Solid Rocket Boosters arrived by train in Florida on Thursday, May 27.
Six railroad cars loaded with the last booster segments traveleled across the country, starting from their production facility at the ATK solid rocket booster plant in Promontory, Utah.
An ATK spokesman told me that "over 1500 workers have already been laid off" as the booster production lines have been progressively curtailed and shut down.
NASA officials including astronaut Mike Massimino and spokesman George Diller as well as senior ATK managers boarded the train in Jacksonville, Fla., for the final leg of the trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The six railroad cars were transported by Florida East Coast Railway to NASA's "Jay Jay" railroad yard located in Titusville, about 13 miles north of KSC. A NASA locomotive pulled the rocket segments across the Indian River for delivery into KSC on Friday, May 28
Diller told me that, "These solid rocket booster segments will be used for what is currently being planned as the "launch on need" potential rescue flight [STS -335] for the final shuttle mission by Endeavour on STS-134". Endeavour is targeted to launch no earlier than late November. STS 335 would launch in the unlikely event of an orbital emergency during STS 134.
"Atlantis will be processed for that potential mission", according to Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach, who also attended the booster segment arrival. Leinbach said to me that it's a sad time for the shuttle team as they see the program shut down for lack of funding while it still has vital missions to accomplish.
Several of NASA's top shuttle managers have told me directly that the shuttle has never been safer to fly than now, and that it could continue to safely fly 1 or 2 flights per year for several years. "Lack of money not safety is the reason why the Space Shuttle Program is ending", shuttle managers say.
These last booster segments will be stacked for Atlantis inside the Vehicle Assembly Building . NASA is evaluating the possibility to add one more mission to the shuttle manifest and utilize these boosters on an actual flight that would supply critically needed logistical supplies and science experiments and gear to the International Space Station.
To fly the extra mission, designated as STS 135, NASA requires approval from the Obama Administration and funding from Congress.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, is strongly lobbying to get the STS 135 flight approved. He told President Obama in a letter on Wednesday, May 26, that he intended to request authorization for the extra mission which "would provide critical spare parts and logistics for long-term ISS operations."
At a press briefing this week, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said NASA would like to get an approval for the added flight by end of June 2010 to begin detailed planning. NASA would likely launch STS 135 around June 2011, when the ISS would need the supplies. The flight would be limited to a crew of four who would take safe harbor at the ISS in case of an emergency. Soyuz capsules would serve as the rescue vehicles.
After the shuttle is retired, NASA will have to rely completely on commercial providers who have not yet flown their first mission to loft supplies to the space station. SpaceX is now targeting early June for the first test flight of their new Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA astronauts will have no choice but to fly aboard Russian Soyuz capsules for many years to come, at a cost of over $50 Million per seat, because the premature shutdown of the shuttle will scuttle America's ability to launch humans into space and to the ISS.
One of 6 rail cars transporting final segments for shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters arrives in Florida on May 27. Boosters segments will be stacked for Atlantis "Launch on Need" potential mission and may never fly in space unless an additional shuttle flight is approved by President Obama. Credit: Ken Kremer
6 Rail cars with final shuttle SRB segments. Credit: Ken Kremer
Last segments for shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters arrive in Florida on May 27 aboard 6 railcars after cross country trip from ATK production factory in Utah. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA locomotive delivers the 6 rail cars loaded with shuttle boosters to KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer
Astronaut Mike Massimino speaks with media about looming end to shuttle program as last SRB's arrive in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach and Ken Kremer discuss arrival of last SRB segments and possibility for additional shuttle flight. Credit: Ken Kremer