Private enterprise steps up to do what the government won't. United Space Alliance (USA) is proposing to take over operation of two of the shuttles (Atlantis and Endeavour) and continue to fly them for ISS support and perhaps commercial/tourist ventures.
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They could re-start external tank production and be ready to launch in 2013, which would fill in the gap before other commercial crew launch vehicles are ready, end the reliance on Russian launches, preserve the ability to return objects from ISS as well as return satellites which need repair, and assure large replacement items for ISS can be delivered if needed. Continued shuttle flights could also launch elements of a manned asteroid or lunar mission.
In no way does this proposal compete with or take away from Space X and other new commercial ventures; the shuttle is more expensive for just launching crew members and delivering small quantities of supplies, but it is the unique heavy cargo delivery and return capability which is irreplaceable--nothing else even on the drawing boards can match it. America can't afford to be withour the launch and return capabilities of the shuttle, and together with other private launch rockets, American access to space will be assured.
NASA under its current leadership might be incapable of making the right decision, but Congress should order NASA to accept the deal if they won't on their own.
What value are the shuttles collecting dust in museums when they could continue in service? A private operator could also sell empty seats to help cover costs, sell space onboard for experiments, launch satellites, etc.
United Space Services is the contractor which maintains the shuttle fleet, therefore they are the experts in shuttle flight and maintenance and uniquely qualified to continue to operate the shuttle. Thousands of shuttle workers would sigh with relief if their jobs can be saved or restored.
The shuttles have been improved and upgraded over their life, and they are virtually rebuilt after each mission. The flaws which cost the lives on the two lost shuttles have been corrected; so it is a well tested system. That the recent tank stringer cracks were detected and repaired shows the system works; the shuttles can continue to fly safely.
Many people do not know that each orbiter was designed for 100 flights, and none have exceeded 38--they have years of service remaining. Atlantis has had 32 launches, and the newest orbiter, Endeavour has had just 24. USA's proposal does not include Discovery, so perhaps it would be retired for museum display and/or used for critical spare parts.
NASA in fact does see the value of retaining at least one operational shuttle, further proving the concept is sound:
Let's help make this happen:
Call the White House at 202-456-1111 and ask the President to accept USA's offer.
Call Congress--ask them to urge (or force if needed) NASA to approve USA's deal to fly the shuttles privately. 202-224-3121 Members of Congress can begin by writing a letter to NASA urging approval of the offer.