Space Transportation Association White Paper: Space Shuttle Upgrades

Status Report From: Space Transportation Association
Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2002


The Space Transportation Association urges NASA and the Congress to fully fund Space Shuttle upgrades and to accelerate those Shuttle upgrades that will reduce costs and improve safety of flight operations. NASA should leverage technology investments in the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) program such as engine and vehicle health maintenance systems that could be applied to the existing Space Shuttle fleet. Delaying or deferring planned upgrades because of budget shortfalls threatens the future of human spaceflight. STA also calls on NASA to conduct a comprehensive assessment of Shuttle workforce training and retention needs consistent with an extended service life of the Shuttle fleet.

STA urges the Congress to add sufficient funds to the NASA budget to support a minimum of six Space Shuttle missions per year beginning in the 2003 Fiscal Year. The current plan for four flights per year is insufficient to maintain a healthy and robust Space Shuttle fleet and work force.


Since the first flight of the Space Shuttle on April 12, 1981 NASA has sought continuous improvements to the systems and operations of the Shuttle vehicles and their components. Following the 1986 Challenger accident, a significant number of systems and subsystems of the entire Space Shuttle vehicle were upgraded or modified to assure safe resumption of flight, which occurred in September 1988. Additional system upgrades were ordered in the 1990s to facilitate Shuttle rendezvous and docking with the Russian MIR station.

In 1996, following a comprehensive review of the Space Shuttle program chaired by former Johnson Space Center Director Christopher Kraft, responsibility for some of the elements of Shuttle operations were shifted from the federal government to a private contractor, United Space Alliance. A design freeze was also initiated to the Shuttle in the same year. In 1997, that freeze was lifted to allow an initial $100 million in vehicle upgrades to be initiated. The National Research Council conducted a review of the planning for the Shuttle upgrades program in 1998 and 1999 and reported in March 1999 a suggested series of 25 recommendations for improvements to the upgrade selection process. Four phases of upgrades were reviewed, from those that increase the vehicle's safety in flight to those which enhance the Shuttle's capability and others which would change the fundamental configuration of the stacked vehicle.

In fiscal year 2002 and beyond, NASA has proposed increases to the upgrades budget consistent with continued development and implementation of candidate upgrades. STA notes that the FY2001 budget contained a request for $256 million for upgrades and the FY2002 budget requested $406 million. But the shifting overall budget picture for NASA had led program officials to reevaluate some candidate upgrades, defer others, and find some previously proposed candidates as technologically immature. In FY2003 the agency reduced funding for some flight hardware safety upgrades, saying that " a flat five-year budget" and increases in contractor costs had contributed to shortfalls in the planned upgrades program. In FY2002 alone that shortfall amounted to $218 million, over the five-year original budget plan those shortfalls could amount to $1 billion or more.

For too many years, the Space Shuttle program budget has been raided to fund unrelated projects proposed by the previous administrator. These reductions threaten to weaken the program at a critical time, and must stop.

Measured in fiscal year 2001 dollars, the Shuttle budget has been reduced 40 percent since FY1990. If the budget continues on its present, projected path, the budget from FY 2006 through FY 2015, using the current FY2006 inflation projection, would yield a net reduction of 67 percent from the FY 1990 level. For the future of the Shuttle program and America's leadership in human spaceflight, this cannot be allowed to happen.

Recommendation: STA urges Congress to add additional funds above the agency's FY03 request to fully fund the upgrade program as originally planned. NASA should complete its upgrade development plan, including studies of crew escape options. STA also urges both NASA and Congress to better define the relationship between Space Shuttle upgrades and the Space Launch Initiative, and develop a specific framework for the eventual transition from the Shuttle to a second-generation reusable vehicle.

This increase would reduce or eliminate deferrals such as Orbiter Cockpit upgrades, Advanced Health Monitoring Systems, and fund technology development for the cancelled Electric Auxiliary Power Unit. Funding should also proceed with the Thrust-vector Control System for the SRBs, enhanced Main Landing Gear Tires, and SBR Propellant Grain modifications. If the Shuttle is to continue flying until 2020, Phase Four upgrades such as the Five-Segment Solid Booster should be seriously considered.

Shuttle Infrastructure

The existing launch operations infrastructure, such as processing facilities, assembly buildings, launch control and checkout centers, and attendant logistics elements such as roadways, software, and support equipment are essential elements to the safe and reliable operation of the Shuttle fleet. But NASA budget pressures in recent years have forced the agency to omit funding for several vitally needed facility upgrades. STA makes note of the fact that twice in 2001 Shuttle launch countdowns had to switch firing rooms because of computer interface problems. The Vehicle Assembly Building where the Shuttle elements are stacked had to temporarily suspend operations because of electric system malfunctions. Such elementary and simple components as load breaker switches have affected stacking operations.

In the agency's FY2003 budget repairs to the VAB roof and other infrastructure repairs have been proposed for funding. STA applauds this action. We also note that the FY03 budget contains $76.4 million for infrastructure revitalization in a overall infrastructure five-year budget of $370.6 million. The 2003 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) report predicts that "Much of the Space Shuttle ground infrastructure has deteriorated and will not be capable of supporting the Space Shuttle for its realistic service life."

STA Recommendation: NASA conduct a comprehensive review of the logistical and infrastructure needs of the Shuttle program through 2020, with a budget to support such needs proposed to Congress beginning in FY2004.

Shuttle Workforce

Under NASA leadership, management and the USA contract, the number of personnel supporting Shuttle operations is at the lowest level in the program's history, while the number of on-time launches has risen and the number of in-flight anomalies have decreased. This is but one of the positive effects of the consolidated space operations effort and the evolution towards increased use of a private company to process and prepare the Shuttles for space flight.

STA Recommendation: Continued transition of Space Shuttle flight elements to the private contractor as proposed in the NASA FY2002 and FY2003 budgets.

But workforce retention issues both in current day and in the future threatens the continued ability of both the civil service and private industry to have the talent and skills needed to maintain U.S. space leadership in the 21st Century.

STA Recommendation: NASA should develop, fund, and implement a comprehensive initiative to identify critical workforce requirements for the entire maximum service life of the Space Shuttle fleet.

Space Shuttle Flight Rates

The FY2002 NASA budget contained funds for six Space Shuttle missions during the fiscal year. But the agency's FY2003 budget submission contains a request for only four missions, all dedicated flights to the International Space Station. STA notes that all of the recent studies of Space Shuttle operations, including the 2000 Report of the Space Shuttle Independent Assessment Team ("McDonald Report") call for annual Shuttle flight rates in excess of the FY2003 recommendation. Severe reductions in annual missions will both underutilize the Shuttle and place continued stress on the workforce that maintains the winged fleet.

STA Recommendation: Congress fund a minimum of six annual Shuttle flights, beginning in the FY2003 budget.


The Space Shuttle is a national asset whose versatility and reliability are at the center of U.S. human space transportation. The American space program as it exists today and will continue to exist tomorrow cannot accomplish the president's space flight goals without it. Yet in times of increasing budget pressure reductions to the program's planned system upgrades, delayed infrastructure repairs, and annual missions will diminish the program's bright potential in the years ahead. Many have labored-and some have been lost-to win for America the space leadership that the Shuttle represents. We do them no honor to shortchange their legacy and the nation's future in human spaceflight.


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