Spaceflight Now

Painful retirement for space shuttle operations team
Posted: July 6, 2011

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For tens of thousands of past and present shuttle workers, including more than 3,000 expecting layoffs July 22, the traditional "wheels stopped" call from Ferguson will signal the end of an era.

Workers hold up a "We're Behind You, Atlantis" banner during the orbiter's rollout from the hangar in May. Credit: NASA
"After the wheels have stopped and the displays go blank and the orbiter is unpowered for the final time ... there will be a rush of emotion when we all finally realize that's it, that it's all over, the crowning jewel of our space program, the way we got back and forth from low-Earth orbit for 30 years ... we'll realize that's all over," Ferguson said. "That's going to take a little while to deal with it."

Atlantis' landing will come seven-and-a-half years after President George W. Bush, responding to the 2003 Columbia disaster, ordered NASA to complete the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle fleet by the end of the decade.

When all was said and done, the final two shuttle missions slipped into the first half of 2011 and a third flight, with Atlantis, was added to the manifest to deliver a final load of supplies to the space station.

The Bush administration's plan was to eliminate the costly shuttle program -- and the thousands of contractor jobs that made it so expensive -- and use the savings to help pay for a new program, building safer, lower-cost rockets needed to support the establishment of Antarctica-style bases on the moon by around 2020.

But Bush never fully funded his Constellation moon program -- he barely mentioned it after the initial 2004 announcement at NASA Headquarters -- and the Obama administration decided in 2009 that it was simply too expensive.

Writing off nearly $10 billion spent on initial design and development of the Constellation moon program rockets and infrastructure, President Obama settled on a controversial new plan that marked a drastic change of course for NASA.

The so-called "flexible path" approach calls for the near-term development of private-sector spaceships to ferry astronauts to and from the space station on a for-profit basis while NASA focuses on designing new, more affordable rockets and spacecraft for eventual voyages to nearby asteroids, the moons of Mars or even the red planet itself.

"By investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies, we have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities ... for future missions," Obama said during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in 2010. "And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones.

"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."

But those flights are little more than long-range dreams at this point. The heavy lift rocket needed to boost such missions into deep space has not yet been designed and test flights are years away as are initial flights of commercial manned spacecraft intended to service the space station.

In the near term, for the next four to six years, U.S. astronauts and their international partners will be forced to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at about $60 million a seat, for trips to and from the International Space Station.

"Does it bother me? I think the transition could have taken place a little more gradually," Ferguson said of the Obama space policy. "I would have liked to have seen a little more openness and not have it occur so suddenly. Does that mean it's the wrong thing to do? I'm really not sure. We had alluded to, in the past, we're really taking a risk. We are. And with big risks come big rewards. This could turn out to be the savior of human spaceflight in America. I'm really not sure, only time will tell.

"I do think we are kind of hanging it out a little bit," he said. "But I'm optimistic about the future and in the interim, we have our Russian partners. They'll get us up and down, we're paying customers, and they're good to their word."

PART 3: Relying on the Russians for access to space -->