By Don Beattie, former NASA manager - 01/15/09 07:21 PM EST
The claim by NASA that it will require an additional $3 billion per year to keep the shuttle flying must be closely examined (article, “Recession may ground space flights,” Jan. 14). Administrator Michael Griffin wants the shuttle retired regardless of the consequences — this was his position before he became administrator — and thus NASA analyses will always show how costly the program is.
NASA cost figures are, I believe, inflated for several reasons. In general, each shuttle flight is put at about $500 million. This number includes associated costs such as preparation, maintenance, crew training, operations, and so forth. If we continue at two flights per year, that’s about $1 billion annually. That number can be reduced by such factors as the recently announced price per seat on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft of $47 million for an American crew member going to the International Space Station.
You can further reduce costs with respect to supplies that each shuttle would normally carry to the space station. After 2010 the supplies would have to be carried by some other means, such as additional Progress cargo flights that we would pay for.
With all the problems the aerospace community is facing, perhaps Lockheed Martin would be willing to make a deal advantageous to the government if not pressured by NASA to toe the mark and support the Ares program.
Then there is always the possibility that some major space station element will fail (some are now more than 10 years old) and the only means to replace it will be by the shuttle. Other carriers are not large enough to carry the basic elements. Also, shuttle crews while docked will be in the best position to carry out difficult maintenance. No one can say, for example, if the rotary joint repair will be a permanent fix or there will be further problems.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board had real concerns. But NASA responded and the concerns have been addressed, even the most difficult, on-orbit repair. Many at NASA believe the shuttle is safer now than when first flown 25 years ago because of the many changes made, including improved management oversight. A study was made since the changes were completed that indicates the shuttle can fly safely to 2020.
Shuttle flights will always have a degree of danger, just as a new launch vehicle such as Ares will. Perhaps the Government Accountability Office will study NASA’s cost estimates to see if they hold up when all other considerations are taken into account.