NASA Looks to Replace Space Shuttle With Orbital Space Plane

Last weekend NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and much of NASA HQ senior management went on a retreat at the Minnowbrook Conference Center at Syracuse University. Among the topics discussed: NASA's Integrated Space Transportation Plan (ISTP).

The road ahead? The U.S. is now heading towards a 100% home-grown successor to America's Space Shuttle and alternative to Russia's Soyuz.

For the past several years, NASA's generalized concept for a follow-on to the Space Shuttle has been a smaller vehicle specifically designed to transport humans to and from orbit. Only minimal cargo carrying capability would be provided. This vehicle has gone under the general name/acronym of "CTV" (Crew Transport Vehicle).

Current planning at NASA HQ has now focused and recast the role of the CTV. In its deliberations on re-toolling the ISTP, NASA HQ now refers to it as the "Orbital Space Plane." The current concept favored by NASA HQ involves launching the Orbital Space Plane aboard an EELV (Delta IV and/or Atlas V) rocket. Moreover, this is not just a way to take people to and from orbit, it is also the means whereby they could be removed from the ISS (on short notice) in an emergency. As such, the term "CRV" (Crew Return Vehicle) is used less often these days. There is also little mention of long-term usage of Soyuz "Interim" CRVs beyond current arrangements with Russia.

The Space Shuttle figures very prominently in NASA's future plans - with its life likely to reach well into the next decade with development of advanced 'third' generation reusable launch systems to slip into the future. This focus on Shuttle operations will require increased spending on making the Shuttle system not only safer but more reliable and more economical to operate. These modifications have been referred to as Shuttle "upgrades" in recent years.

Given the somewhat more expansive span of Shuttle modifications anticipated, NASA HQ is now referring to them as Shuttle "enhancements". Also under discussion: increased Shuttle flight rates and the possible future flight of Space Shuttle vehicles - unpiloted. Also: look for X-37 orbital tests.

Meanwhile, to set the course for these major changes, modifications to the current FY 2003 Budget request (and future years) are being developed by NASA for forwarding to OMB. If implemented, these changes would result in dramatically decreasing funding for SLI. A substantial portion (more than $2.3 billion between FY 2003 and 2007) of the Space Launch Initiative's $4.8 billion will be spent in the coming years on other programs such as the Orbital Space Plane, ISS, Life and Microgravity sciences, and Space Shuttle "enhancements".

SLI will be reduced to a program of advanced technology demonstration - not one of launch system development as previously envisioned.

Related links

  • 22 October 2002: Rep. Hall Releases O'Keefe's Responses on Crew Return Plans for the Space Station (contains link to letters from O'Keefe and Hall)

    "Mr. O'Keefe's June, 2002 announcement of the cancellation of the X-38/CRV program did not raise cost growth or schedule as factors in that decision. It seems clear to me that the new cost and schedule estimates for the CRV are not based on a thorough technical analysis, but rather on a desire to portray CTV development in a more favorable light."

  • 21 October 2002: NASA delays review of Space Launch Initiative requirements

    "NASA will reschedule the review when the agency completes its assessment of its Integrated Space Transportation Plan, ascertains the role of the Department of Defense in the SLI, determines the future requirements of the International Space Station and firms up the agency's future space transportation needs."

  • 10 October 2002: NASA and the Department of Defense Chart a Cautious (but Far-Reaching) Course - Together, SpaceRef

    "NASA is now looking to move management of the proposed SLI crew transport capability from NASA MSFC to NASA headquarters. It is expected that this will be managed by a team composed of Code M (Office of Space Flight) and Code R (Office of Aerospace Technology) with a PEO - Program Executive Officer - at the helm."

  • 1 May 2002: SLI Takes A Small Step Forward Into An Uncertain Future, SpaceRef

    "When asked about how the Shuttle and Second Generation launch systems would overlap - and if there was a requirement upon Second Generation architecture to do so, (or if NASA had any firm transition plan) Smith could not give a direct 'yes' or 'no' answer. Instead, he gave a long answer which, summed up, said that it is good that NASA is doing various studies."

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