Now NASA has only two space shuttle missions planned before it retires its aging orbiter fleet, but US President Barack Obama and Congress recently approved an additional spaceflight by Atlantis. Whether that will actually happen has not been decided yet.
Less than two weeks before the space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch on its last flight, uncertainty still remains as to exactly when NASA’s very final orbiter mission will fly, bringing the storied shuttle era to a close next year. NASA has two scheduled shuttle missions, on Discovery and Endeavour, left to fly before retiring its orbiter fleet in 2011. A third, extra shuttle mission has been approved by Congress and President Obama, but still faces review by congressional appropriators later this year.
But NASA’s shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters Thursday (Oct. 21) that definitive plans have not yet been made as to whether the potential third and final shuttle mission will fly to the International Space Station. This uncertainty does not mean that NASA will not be ready to launch Atlantis again if the committee in charge of appropriations decided to sanction the plant to fly Atlantis to the International Space Station (ISS) one last time.
The last two approved spaceflights will be carried out by the space shuttle Discovery on November 1, and by Endeavor in February 2011. The future of the program beyond that is still up for grabs. Atlantis is currently being prepped for another flight in any case. It is scheduled to act as a rescue mission for the crew of Endeavor, in case anything goes wrong during the orbiter’s final flight.
Discovery is poised to launch Nov. 1 on an 11-day mission to deliver a storage room and humanoid robot to the International Space Station. The mission will be the 39th and last space voyage for Discovery NASA’s oldest flying shuttle. The shuttle Endeavour is set to follow Discovery’s final flight with one last mission of its own in early 2011. NASA’s third shuttle in service, Atlantis, is being prepared to serve as a possible rescue vehicle for Endeavour’s flight scheduled to launch Feb. 27. Having backup shuttles ready has been standard for NASA since the tragic 2003 loss of shuttle Columbia and its crew. NASA says that it costs around $200 million a month to keep the shuttle program alive, and so Atlantis’ launch will depend entirely on whether the appropriations committee will decide to unblock the money.
The official stressed that the six-astronaut crew living aboard the ISS needs a strong logistics support in order to keep carrying on with their mission, and that the lack of an additional shuttle flight would put a major dent in that chain. In addition to the shuttles, Russian Soyuz and Progress capsules, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV are the only spacecrafts that can reach the ISS with cargo payloads, supply and experiments. But a Progress capsule can carry only 2.5 tons of materials. The European and Japanese spacecrafts are larger, but nowhere near the storing capacity of a space shuttle. “My operations guy said one shuttle flight is equivalent to roughly seven Progress flights. So, getting to fly [STS-]135 late is going to give the space station margin to keep six crew (members) up, to keep doing research,” the Shuttle Program manager argued.