NASA sets date for space shuttle finale

NASA plans extend space shuttle flight into 2011

After some debate, NASA today said it has set the final two launch dates for its venerable space shuttles.  Those dates are:

  • Nov. 1 for space shuttle Discovery's STS-133 mission.
  • Feb. 26, 2011, for the liftoff of shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission.

NASA said the dates needed to be adjusted because critical payload hardware for STS-133 will not be ready in time to support the planned Sept. 16 launch. With STS-133 moving to November, STS-134 cannot fly as planned, NASA stated so the next available launch window is in February 2011.

21 critical future NASA missions

There is still an outside shot that shuttle Atlantis could fly one more mission but NASA has not made a final decision on that and likely won't until after August.

In November, Discovery is set for a 10 day mission that will have it delivering the Express Logistics Carrier 4  and variety of spare parts to the International Space Station.  The logistics carriers add cargo space to the ISS.

Space shuttle Endeavour's 2011 13 day mission will include the delivery of the cosmic ray detector known as an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer as well as spare parts including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank, and additional ISS spare parts.

In the end the shuttles will have helped complete the ISS at a cost to NASA of about  $48.5 billion, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. NASA says once the ISS is finished, the ISS crew will be able to focus its efforts on dedicated utilization of the onboard research capabilities.

In fact NASA recently said it was looking for new experiments to run on the ISS lab.  The space said it was looking to expand the use of the ISS by providing access to the lab for the conduct of basic and applied research, technology development and industrial processing to private entities -- including commercial firms, non-profit institutions, and academic institutions. US federal, state and local government entities, and could also propose research.

NASA said it was particularly interested in, but not limited to, two areas of ISS expansion.

1. Payload Integration and Operations Support Services:  There is an emphasis on systems or process that would enable new areas or research or production not currently available on ISS. Support services may include project-specific payload integration and operations support on an as needed bases in response to specific requirements as they emerge, NASA stated.

2. Support Equipment and Instrumentation: NASA said it is interested in concepts that advance the capabilities of the ISS for utilization including providing standard interfaces that simplify and enable multiple research areas; expand the on orbit capabilities to allow for in-situ analysis and evaluation of payload results; and expand the on orbit capabilities to allow for more sophisticated operations on board. 

The space shuttles' retirement follows almost 30 years of service and will after September leave the US without any major way of launching astronauts into space.  NASA will fly astronauts onboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft after 2011.

In related news, NASA this week issued the official announcement that it wants a new heavy-lift rocket to help it get deep into outer space. NASA said it will spend $8 million on the project with no individual contract exceeding $625,000. In May NASA said it would soon begin looking for a next generation heavy lift rocket that could be used around 2015 - the earliest date that the currently envisioned heavy-lift system could begin work.

In his April speech outlining NASA's future, President Obama said there would be $3.1 billion for the development of a new heavy lift rocket to fly manned and unmanned spaceflights into deep space.  Obama said he wanted this technologically advanced rocket to be designed and ready to build by 2015.

In its announcement this week NASA said the technical objective of the new program  is the identification of the capabilities required to support an innovative evolutionary human space exploration activity, with possible destinations including the Moon, Mars and its environs, near-earth asteroids, and Lagrange points. The focus of the systems analysis is to determine the technology, and research and development required for a Heavy Lift System, defined as including a heavy lift launch vehicle and the in-space propulsion elements required to conduct those human space exploration activities.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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