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Desirable Rumor: The Space Shuttle May Still Have a Future

shuttle-cHere's a tantalizing but hugely exciting rumor for human spaceflight geeks: NASA and the government are rumored to be talking quietly about extending the Shuttle's technology into the future.

The news has popped up on as a product of the discussion preceding the big April 15th Space Summit meeting at NASA Kennedy Flight Center, where more details about the future of human spaceflight in the U.S. are going to be thrashed out. Right now the status of manned space flight is stalled: The President has canceled the Ares series of rockets that would've taken man to the Moon in the near future (and served as super-heavy lift launch vehicles) and the Space Shuttle has just three flights remaining after the current mission of Discovery. Though there are private contenders receiving government money to develop their own human-rated expendable launch vehicles, these solutions from companies like Space X are still years off. So the future for U.S. astronauts is hazy, with forced reliance on Russian rocketry to gain access to the ISS.

Or maybe not. Because Spaceref's sources suggest some sort of consensus is emerging that will see the Shuttle's lifespan extended, possibly a new variant of the Shuttle pulled together, and that the Orion human-rated capsule that would've flown on Ares I rockets may get a new lease of life as "Orion Lite," and may be engineered to fly aboard privately-developed rockets.

Specifically, the Shuttle may fly for several more years, but at a rate of only two or so launches per annum. This would mean NASA retains the Shuttle's unparalleled powers to take cargo and humans aloft at the same time, for ISS or satellite launch/recovery/repair, but the expenditure needed to support the missions is much reduced.

More excitingly, Shuttle external tank production may be restarted, with a view to supporting a rapidly pulled-together Shuttle variant, designed to only haul cargo into space. I say "rapidly pulled-together" but this is only partly true, as studies for Shuttle variant tech date back to the era when the Shuttle itself was being created. The leading contender may be the well-known Shuttle C, which has that iconic orange fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, but instead of the winged Shuttle it would have a flying pod carrying only cargo and the Space Shuttle Main Engines. 

This makes sense for all sorts of reasons: It would deliver an own-brand heavy lift capability to NASA much sooner than may otherwise be possible, since it leverages tech that's already well known and understood from the Space Shuttle systems. It's probably a cheap option too, and it doesn't shut out the burgeoning commercial space business in the U.S., who may complain that their promised glowing future had been snatched away. It's even got historical precedent: NASA, for numerous reasons, was required to abandon the amazing Saturn V rocket back in 1973, along with all of its proposed successors. Some of these were ridiculous—including one that could've launched the entire ISS in a single launch, and one that would've had 13 of the rocket's awesome F1 first stage engines burning at launch (the Saturn V itself had just five, and it's still the biggest rocket ever flown.)

Spaceref's rumors also point to other future-facing spacecraft, like an exclusively space-based "exploration craft" built from unused ISS modules, launched by the Shuttle C, and destined to help humans explore the solar system.

It's really fanciful stuff, of course. But for the sake of science, innovation, the millions of spin-off technologies that will result, and the boldness of exploring frontiers, my fingers, for one, are very firmly crossed.

Saturn V image credit: Mark Wade, via Astronautix.

To keep up with this exciting news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.