Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Shuttle - What Next? One Possibility

It's clear that the current space shuttle system is past due for retirement, but what will replace it? Recently I saw pointed out online that NASA really needs 3 vehicles - a "commuter car" to take crews to and from the ISS and other orbital facilities, a "pickup truck" to supply them, and a "big rig" to carry heavy cargo into orbit. Clearly the first two vehicles would be reusable. The "big rig" might not be, at least at first. And NASA actually could produce that vehicle quite rapidly, because the plans already exist for a shuttle development called Shuttle-C.

Shuttle-C was intended to be an unmanned cargo carrier that would use the external tank and solid rocket boosters of the current shuttle program, plus outdated Space Shuttle Main Engines. It was fully compatible with existing KSC infrastructure - VAB, crawler transporter, launch pads, etc. The engines would be attached to a large cargo pod that could carry a considerably larger amount of payload than the shuttle orbiter. The engine pod might possibly be recoverable. There were several suggested configurations (including one with only two SSMEs). Currently all shuttle orbiters are fitted with the Block II SSMEs. Presumably at least some of the Block I engines are still floating around and could be dedicated to this project, and later vehicles could use Block II engines once they reach the end of their economical lifetime.

NASA scuttled Shuttle-C in the late 80s or early 90s, after building a mockup of the cargo pod. I think it's time to seriously look at this concept again as an interim heavy lifter for completing space station construction and a future return to the Moon.

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