A Sacrifice for AMS?
Shuttle Discovery photographed from ISS during STS-124. Below is the KIBO pressurised module, and to the right is the Japanese logistics module. Discovery undocked from ISS at 0742 EDT (see below) and is due to return Saturday. The Hubble Space Telescope repair mission is scheduled for October, but may be delayed due to launch damage to Pad 39-A. Previously STS-125 was to be Atlantis' last mission, but she may be saved for STS-128 and STS-131. The three surviving Shuttles are scheduled for retirement.
Today NASA is due to announce a decision on the Constellation Space Suit Program. While we are waiting, the US Congress is considering a new NASA authorization bill. H.R. 6063 will give NASA 2.9 billion more than the White House requested. It also orders one more Shuttle flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. NASA administrators are resistant to AMS because of safety concerns and delays in implementing Constellation. They are eager to junk the Shuttles and make way for Orion.
There may be a way to make everyone happy. It would be cheaper, get AMS into Space without any chance of a Columbia accident, and accelerate retiring of Shuttle. Since this would be the last flight, we could use the Shuttle to deliver AMS and leave it in Space. This follows a long Navy tradition of scuttling the ship to save the mission.
While most Shuttle flights carry seven, nominal mission STS-134 could be accomplished with a crew of three: Commander, Pilot and Mission Specialist. Attaching AMS to the Station will require two crewmembers and multiple EVA's. The Mission Specialist will be responsible for installing AMS assisted by the pilot, with the ISS crew available for extra help. Once installation is complete, the Shuttle is no longer necessary.
The crew of three will return by Soyuz. There are extra seats available on returning Soyuz flights, which is how Expedition Six returned after Columbia. Hopefully the Soyuz problem of ballistic entry will be solved by 2010. NASA may even do like Sergei Brin and charter an extra Soyuz mission.
Concerning Spacesuits, the three EMU's brought by the mission would add to the ISS collection. The current EMU was designed for Shuttle and will not fit in Soyuz or Orion. Once the Shuttles stop flying the ISS crew will have to make do with the EMU's they have until those suits wear out. Any additional Shuttle mission will be valuable in bringing extra small payloads-perhaps the ISS toilet will need more parts.
At the conclusion of its mission the Shuttle will be stripped of useful equipment and cut loose from ISS. This should be done shortly before a station-keeping maneuver, which will boost ISS into a higher orbit and leave the Shuttle behind. Atmospheric drag will take care of the rest. While Mission Control has limited ability to control an unmanned Shuttle, hopefully they can steer her to come down in the Pacific.
Columbia showed us what would happen next. Uncontrolled, the Shuttle would glide in as far as ground control would take it. At a certain point she would tumble out of control and break up. Like Columbia or Captain Kirk's Enterprise, her death would be a spectacular event seen from Earth.
Since NASA is so eager to end the Shuttle programme, they might consider the same profile for STS-133. Endeavour's mission to deliver Express Logistic Carriers 3 and 4 could also be accomplished without Shuttle return. Abandoning the Shuttle would ensure that the program is not continued. Museums that were hoping to have Shuttles in their collections would be most disappointed, but the cost of "safing" a Shuttle is quite high. Giving the museums Shuttle mockups would be far cheaper, and we could easily include parts from the "real" Shuttles.
Leaving a Shuttle would be a simple and safe way to end the program while carrying AMS into Space. There may be technical details overlooked here-NASA personnel are welcome to point them out. Presently NASA is reluctant to make any plans concerning AMS; that will change if Congress gets their way. This would be a fitting end to the Shuttle era, opening the way for the future.
The Constellation Space Suit contract has just been awarded to my friends at Oceaneering. More about this soon!