By the close of summer, NASA’s Space Shuttles will fly no more. The program that began with the launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981 is due to close with the launch and return of Atlantis on June 28, 2011. The program’s total missions when 2011 ends will be 135. Next steps: Official retirement, sendoff parties, and plans to dismantle and distribute the shuttles to museums in California, Florida, New York, and Virginia.
How do you salvage the unsalvageable? Bring in a contractor, of course. SPACE.com says the chances are slim, but reports a bid to keep NASA’s earth-orbiters space-bound is still in the offing. United Space Alliance wants to fly Atlantis and Endeavour commercially twice a year after constructing a new external fuel tank.
“We’re not done yet–we’re probably almost done, but we have another shot at it, so we’re going to address it one more time,” USA executive vice president Dan Brandenstein told SPACE.com. Brandenstein’s a former astronaut who flew a Space Shuttle Challenger mission (Challenger’s third) on August 30, 1983.
USA’s thinking is simple: Without Space Shuttles, NASA has to rely on Russia for trips to and from the International Space Station. NASA’s planning new orbital spacecraft, but we won’t see those for years. USA’s idea is to fill the time between (about five years) with its own Space Shuttle launches, funded by multiple investors and customers to reduce costs.
Still, it’s “an extremely long shot,” Barnes told SPACE.com, though adding ”There’s a lot of momentum already in the commercial market.”
For the sake of NASA and Space Shuttle buffs everywhere, fingers crossed one last time then.