Spacelift Washington: Shuttle Upgrades, SLI Dominate NASA Transportation Plans

Spacelift Washington
Spacelift Washingon Archive

Shuttle Upgrades, SLI Dominate NASA Transportation Plans

WASHINGTON, D.C. Sept. 18 - With more than a half billion in NASA FY 2001 budget dollars set aside for Space Shuttle upgrades, and $290 million more for the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), maintaining the status quo and the quest for its replacement will shape the civil space agency's space transportation direction for much of the next decade. Somewhere in the immediate future the basic launch requirements for NASA-unique payloads and those with a commercial pedigree will have to be defined, if the decisions about how to allocate future resources are to be well structured and definitive.

Such has not always been the case in NASA launch vehicle evolution. And it remains to be seen if those twin goals aren't mutually exclusive.

For all the discussion about SLI's direction, NASA is spending twice the amount set aside for starting SLI in FY2001 for more upgraded systems for the Shuttle. Such continuous, consistent investments in the quarter-century old winged vehicle should be driven by a specific timetable of when and how to transition national payloads from it to whatever shape its replacement takes.

Not so.

The debate on what form a new, national human space transportation system should take has avoided a clear and concise set of specific NASA payload needs that would, in essence, be the driver for a Shuttle-like replacement for today's existing Shuttle. If NASA has a need to preserve a 15 x 65-foot long open cargo bay for its next generation piloted launcher, then such payloads need to be defined-now. It seems pretty remote at this point that any commercial spacecraft or payload would require such accommodations.

But getting a rational and clear-eyed discussion about this has been difficult. NASA Shuttle operators are wary about giving up the large-payloads-and-people mix that has been unique to Space Shuttle. And commercial industry has been less than enthusiastic about building in the next generation commercial vehicle requirements that will only be used by the U.S. government-and then for how long and for what not yet being defined.

One truism in this debate is that once a capability has been abandoned, it becomes that much more difficult-if not impossible -to get it back. Consider the state of U.S. heavy lift in the post-Saturn V era, for example.

On the other hand, much of the Shuttle's payload and assembly capability was designed for the construction of large low Earth orbit structures -like what was once called Space Station Freedom -specifically designed, in turn, for Shuttle assembly.

As the nation begins spending tax dollars on defining the next human launcher, and the debate on how much of the existing Space Shuttle systems should be replaced and thereby extending its life -enters a new administration's area of responsibility, perhaps someone somewhere will bridge the gap between civil space and commercial launch and find those elements of commonality between the two -if any.

And then again, looking at the FY2001 budget discussions, there is the 'dog that didn't bark'. What is that, you ask?

Look through the FY2001 budget and report language. Do you see the words "X-33"? Wasn't it to yield the system that SLI will now define?

References:

  • 12 September 2000: House Conference Report 106-843: Conference Report on H.R. 1654, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 2000 (full text)


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