The Space Shuttle program of the space shuttle was an important bet of NASA in its plan to conquer space. Before man landed on the moon, The United States thought about designing a partially reusable ship. Although it succeeded, the cost to the space agency was so great that it decided to close the program in 2011 and decommission four of the six shuttles built.
With interest in space travel on the rise and the Artemis program on the horizon, some wonder if it is possible to reuse any space shuttle. After all, the development of the Space Launch System (successor to the Space Shuttle) is not going according to plan and has been delayed numerous times. NASA could use its ships and not be relegated to private companies in the space race, right?
Although this sounds logical to some people, the reality is that reactivating the space shuttle is more complex than it seems. All four orbiters — Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavor and Enterprise — on display in museums across the United States have undergone modifications and lost components critical to their operation.
What happened to the ferries after the program was cancelled?
The landing of Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in July 2011 marked the end of the ambitious space shuttle program. The end of the Space Shuttle was announced in 2004, so NASA had plenty of time to define a retirement plan to ensure the preservation of the orbiters and their technology.
Prior to the STS-135 mission, NASA began the process of retiring Discovery and Endeavour. The engineers they removed the parts that could represent a dangersuch as the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) and the jet control system (RCS). The hypergolic engines of the OMS used methylhydrazine, a highly carcinogenic toxic fuel.
The RS-25 engines used by the orbiters were reused in the Space Launch System (SLS), while others were donated to museums. The multipurpose logistics module (MPLM) developed by the Italian Special Agency repurposed as a permanent module on the International Space Station. This component was key to transporting cargo into space on all program missions.
Thousands of thermal tilesnecessary to protect the fuselage when entering the atmosphere, were auctioned at schools. The thermal protection system was one of the most problematic components of the program and the cause of the Columbia accident in 2003.
Orbiters are a museum attraction
Regarding the orbiters, NASA sent them to various museums in the United States. Discovery, responsible for launching the Hubble Space Telescope, found a home at the National Discovery Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Atlantis stayed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, while Endeavor departed for the ScienCenter museum in California.
The Enterprise is a special case, since although it was the first space shuttle of the program, it never traveled to space. The orbiter was built without thermal protection or engines, however it was used for descent tests. most of the original parts were reused on the other orbitersso NASA had to rebuild it before taking it to the Enterprise Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.
Orbiters found in museums have some important ingredients, like the robotic arms and most of its thermal tiles. Although the engines have stayed with NASA or are on display separately, the vehicles retain their nozzles.
Reactivating a space shuttle would be almost impossible
Before decommissioning its shuttles and sending them to museums, NASA considered a plan to keep Endeavor airworthy. The space agency was looking financing of 1,500 million dollars for carry out two missions per year. At that time it was clear that managers were in no hurry to cancel the program and were analyzing the feasibility of using one of the shuttles until 2017.
If NASA wanted to send Endeavor into space in 2022, it would not only have to assemble the engines, manufacture thermal tiles and payload hardware, to name a few examples. I would also need recover hardware and information technology systems used at the time. Before the shutdown of the space shuttle, the pentagon destroyed most hard drives to prevent the leakage of sensitive information.
revive a space shuttle too would require external factors, such as activating assembly buildings, launch pads, or transportation systems. All of them have already been modified to fit the SLS program.
In the case of the Boeing 747s that were used to transport the orbiters, both are on display in museums.
Reactivating the Space Shuttle would not only be impossible, but it would cost a fortune. If any president had the crazy idea of reclaiming a piece of NASA history, he would take on a host of technical and logistical obstacles. If after all he got his way, send the Endeavor would not offer an advantage against the Crew Dragon or the future Orion.