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The SAFE Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle is an old vehicle, but it is (also) an UNIQUE spacecraft able to do things a capsule (like the Orion) NEVER can do! EVERY Space Shuttle mission can send to LEO (or ISS) up to EIGHT astronauts and up to 24 mT of payload, while the new Orion will be able to send ONLY 3-4 astronauts OR 3 mT of cargo. And, since the price per launch of EACH cargo OR crew Orion may reach $1 billion (including the very high shared Orion/Ares R&D costs) launch ONE crew and 24 mT of cargo (in 3 mT slices) to LEO with the Orions (NINE launches in total) will cost up to $9 billion... over 15 TIMES the ($600M) price of a SINGLE Shuttle launch! Also, the Shuttle has things (airlock, canadarm, big cargo, etc.) and can accomplish missions (assemble, disassemble, repair, send GIANT cargo to LEO and new ISS modules, return big cargo to earth, etc.) absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to do with capsules! Last, but not least, use the Shuttles after 2010 (instead of retire them) may fill the gap of an autonomous american access to space between 2010 and 2015 (when the Orion, finally, will fly). These are part of the reasons why 15 months ago I've suggested in my article to modify the Shuttles to fly CREWLESS.
However, if a crew is absolutely necessary (to send missions' specialists and for ISS crew rotation) there is a simple way to solve the problem: "modify the Shuttle to be SAFER"! The main problem of the Shuttle (compared with past and future capsules) is that it has NO ESCAPE SYSTEM, so, if something goes wrong after lift-off (like in the Challenger accident) the crew has no way to survive. Then, my idea is to modify the Shuttles crew's cabin to be ejectable. If necessary, the crew cabin can be ejected and goes away from Shuttle, then lands softly in the ocean with parachutes and floats thanks to some inflatable airbags (that can be used also for a soil land). A further improvement may be to add a second thermal shield under the crew's cabin so it can be ejected (also) if something goes wrong on reentry (like in the Columbia accident) then it burns in the atmosphere (like a capsule) and land safely. Also, the main thermal shield can be changed with a better version without tiles (like capsules) to reduce the Shuttles' maintenance time and costs!
The way to modify the Shuttle is to resize the cabin for a crew of 4-5 astronauts, use to-day's down floor space for the escape engines and fuel, move the docking system and hatch (used to dock the ISS and, now, also by astronauts to enter in the cabin before the launch) on the top of the cabin (removing the lateral hatch) and change the position of the airlock for EVA. With that changes the $50B Shuttles program will NOT die in 2010, so, these very expensive (and VERY useful) machines will be used in the next 15+ years to accomplish many (VERY CHEAP and SAFER) orbital missions and assemblies that small capsules (like Orion) NEVER can do!!!
The second animation in this page is about an alternative way to build the crew escape module to be smaller, safer, cheaper and faster than my first version, also, a third way to save the astronauts is to reinstall on the Shuttles the ejectable seats (like was in first Columbia flight's tests from 1981) but this solution can work only in the first part of the launch (from lift-off to 5-15 km.) that, however, is the most dangerous part of the flight.
December 9 - 2006
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Copyright © 2006 Gaetano Marano - All rights reserved - The base images used for the drawing is © NASA