Since in the wake of the failure of Soyuz MS-10, "humanity is effectively trapped on Earth" (this of course ignores Chinese launchers), one might try to fly one of the remaining Space Shuttle orbiters again. How hard would it be to get them into space and safely back again (assuming they don't have to be man-rated against current criteria)?

I see some problems:

  1. The orbiters are all in some kind of museum, but important parts (e.g. computers, engines) may have been removed or modified for display, so they might need replacement. And the orbiters probably need at least a C check.
  2. One would need a new external tank, since I don't think one is in storage. I somehow doubt that tools, etc. needed were safely stored away.
  3. The boosters might be the easiest part since SLS uses improved versions.
  4. The infrastructure at Cape Canaveral (Orbiter Processing Facility, Vehicle Assembly Building, Mobile Launcher Platform, Launch Pads, ...) would need to be adapted.
  5. The Shuttle Carriers have been retired; maybe N905NA could fly again.
  6. Astronauts and ground crews would need to be trained.

So how many years would it be before e.g. Atlantis would fly again?

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    Even after today's incident, I'd feel substantially safer launching on a Soyuz than on STS, if for no other reason than there are viable abort modes throughout the ascent. – Russell Borogove Oct 11 at 23:54
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    Come on, one failure in 40 years, and a non-fatal at that, is enough for you to start panicking and dig out retired spacecraft? Surely any such plan would be more costly and less safe than fixing whatever went wrong with Soyuz. – IMil Oct 12 at 0:53
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    @IMil Especially since space shuttles themselves don't have such a positive track record either. – Mast Oct 12 at 5:57
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    Unless the MS-10 can carry 8 billion people, we were effectively trapped on Earth yesterday too. – Jamie Clinton Oct 12 at 23:49
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    The Falcon 9 has a similar cargo capacity to the Shuttle (both about 50,000 lbs), and it's Dragon 2 capsule has a similar crew capacity to the Shuttle (7, though the Shuttle was far comfier). The Falcon 9 is also likely to be far safer than the Shuttle was because it has an emergency escape system similar to the Soyuz, and like the Soyuz the Dragon capsule rides on top, out of way of falling debris. All for the low low cost of 65M per launch (Dragon capsule not included). So why would we resurrect a vehicle that cost $2B per launch with no more capacity and major safety issues? – Randy Hill Oct 13 at 0:44
up vote 78 down vote accepted

In practical terms, it would be impossible.

The Orbiters were designed in the late 1970s and built with the technology of that time. Late in the program there were many logistics nightmares as parts became impossible to find as manufacturers went away or stopped unprofitable lines. In essence, a near-total redesign would be required.

Former flight director and Space Shuttle Program head Wayne Hale has an eloquent article about it here. Note that this was written in 2008 while shuttles were still flying but after the decision to terminate the program had been made.

To take one little example: if we started today to build another external tank at MAF, there are probably enough parts on the shelf. But very shortly we would exhaust supplies of some parts. Maybe on the second tank — which we need to start in 3 months or so — would have to get a new supply of specialty parts. Sometimes the old vendor is still there and could be persuaded to make more of the old parts. But in many cases, a new vendor would have to be found. Since the production run would be small, a premium price would have to be paid; and a certification effort requiring 6 to 12 months would start. Initial production likely would have a number of rejects as the workers learn the process. Hmm. In probably 15 to 18 months would would have the parts to build that second tank — only a year or so later than we needed them. So a new gap would form. Not between shuttle and orion but between shuttle and shuttle.

The training simulators are gone, the shuttle Mission Control is gone, the operations contractor is out of business, the workforce is dispersed. Consummatum est.

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    I wonder what lucky bugger got to take the simulator home. Someone out there has the worlds best mancave. – Innovine Oct 12 at 9:49
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    @Innovine The simulators are at Texas A&Μ University (not on public display), Wings of Dreams museum in Florida, and the Stafford museum in Oklahoma. – Organic Marble Oct 12 at 11:36

The Space Shuttle (or any complicated system for that matter) is not just composed of the hardware itself. It is a system composed of all the infrastructure needed to get it to work. The hardware needed to manufacture and quality check the specific components, the hundreds or thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and mechanics with specific domain knowledge who are now retired or in different jobs. Think of the shuttle itself as the capstone of a gigantic pyramid of social, scientific and commercial infrastructure.

The space shuttle is composed of thousands of subsystems that all (or almost all) have to work just right for the shuttle to even lift off. Without the army of people with intimate knowledge of the subsystems they are responsible for, the supply chain for the manufacture of the many and varied specialty parts, and the huge flow of cash to maintain the existence of both even during periods of no activity, you're not going to get a space shuttle to orbit.

The biggest problem with trying to launch a shuttle today is that all of their engines (both used and spare) have been cannibalised for the SLS program and are currently undergoing upgrades and testing with relation to that.

Whether or not this was a sensible thing to do (it wasn't), that alone means that there is no way a shuttle could launch today. There simply aren't any engines available for them. And in case you thought it would be easy to just build some more, they're doing that anyway; the production line for these engines is in the process of being restarted... it will take another three years before it completes its first engine.

The next show stopper is that the shuttle launch pads have been taken over by other launch vehicles, and have been adapted for their use. SpaceX has spent the last several years ripping out the Shuttle-specific features at LC39A, and have recently installed their own crew access arm for their Crew Dragon spacecraft. The other shuttle pad LC39B has been similarly rendered unsuitable for a shuttle launch today.

Finally (well, I say that, but...) the shuttles themselves are now museum pieces and are no longer in a fit state to fly. They would require significant maintenance, to the point of effectively re-building them, in order to make them airworthy, let alone spaceworthy. If you started this today with a skilled workforce, you could maybe get one of them ready inside of a year. Maybe. But even if you did want to do this work, there is likely nobody around capable of doing it; the skilled personnel capable of working on the shuttle have long since moved on to different roles or retired.

  • 1
    Welcome to the space exploration stack exchange. That's a nice and thorough answer. It would be even better if you could link to some sources for what you say. – Steve Linton Oct 12 at 14:16
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    @SteveLinton: Here's an article about the new engine production. (I might even have been optimistic with three year lead-time; the article says they're planning to deliver six engines by 2024) – Spudley Oct 12 at 14:35
  • I don't have time to look up any other references right now. I'll try to remember to do it later. :-) – Spudley Oct 12 at 14:39
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    The biggest problem is that many of the manufacturers who made parts for the SSME either don't have the same capabilities any more or no longer exist. the entire supply chain is basically gone. One of the reasons for the big push towards additive manufacturing (among others) is to eliminate the need for complex tooling required to make specialty parts for rocket engines. Tooling in general is expensive, and it's difficult to make economical with the low volume of something like rocket engines. – Aaron Oct 12 at 15:42
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    more on shuttle retirement process: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_retirement - lots of components are ripped out, (some are still classified technology), toxic chemical removal occurs, etc... – NKCampbell Oct 12 at 19:01

Apart from all the missing spare parts and infrastructure: You couldn't even rely with your life on a 40 year old washing machine unless you essentially rebuild it, as people do with vintage airplanes. This does not concern single parts which could be exchanged; this concerns the whole craft.

Contacts oxidize, plastic becomes brittle, lubricants gel, condensation collects, capacitors age.

Spacecraft are to aircraft what a formula 1 car is to a VW beetle. You can't compete on a race track in a 40 year old car, even if you can produce all the spare parts; and a competition it is, every time, against gravity and atmosphere and structural stress and temperature and all the other odds, which are, without exception, stacked against you.

  • But what to do with the unreliable and delicate heat shield requiring a lot of inspection, repair and preparation before the next flight? There was not any problem with the ablative heat shield of Soyuz, Gemini and Apollo. – Uwe Oct 14 at 18:38

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