Could the space shuttles have been left in space and used as temporarily visited space stations? One could put a modified spacehab in the cargo bay, with solar panels and with which the Soyuz/Dragon could dock. Wouldn't it have been a cheap and capable alternative to the ISS? Could its systems for life support et cetera work long term? Could they have been put to better use than as museum pieces, with some planning and minor modifications, or is it completely crazy? (I realize that they are not launchable anymore).

Or maybe more realistically, couldn't they simply have been left as modules docked to the ISS? They would've provided some extra working space for the crew, boosting capability for orbital station keeping, RTG power, cargo handling, independent life support and an emergency landing system. The whole point with landing them was to reuse them. Well, they weren't reused after the last landing, so they should never have been landed the last time.

Endeavours last visit at the ISS

Endeavours last visit at the ISS, seen from Soyuz. Could it have stayed there?

  • $\begingroup$ Besides 'momentum' and a rack for deploying solar cells, what is it the shuttle would contribute to the (space hab. and) space station in general? $\endgroup$ – Andrew Thompson Mar 14 '15 at 7:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewThompson Extra working space for the crew, I've heard that the real estate prices per cubic meter are high up there. Reboosting capability for orbital station keeping, RTG power, cargo handling, an emergency landing system, independent life support and communication system and independent everything as a backup and for everyday extended capability. Was the space shuttle useful in space, other than as a cargo launcher? I think so. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Mar 14 '15 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff: the Shuttle didn't have an RTG, it used fuel cells for power. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Mar 14 '15 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ The shuttle would add drag, increase air loss towards vacuum, need extra energy for cooling,... It might have been expensive just to keep it up there ... $\endgroup$ – Antzi Mar 15 '15 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ ...and it's awfully off-center for reboosts. Although scavenging it for useful systems and dumping the shell might be worthwhile. $\endgroup$ – SF. Nov 25 '15 at 11:18

The Shuttle was designed for missions of around 10 days. With the Extended Duration Orbiter system added, missions could be 14-19 days long. STS-80 was the longest actual mission at 17 days. Mission lifetime was limited by fuel for the fuel cells which power the Shuttle.

The EDO pallet weighed 3.2 tons fueled and was 4.5 m in diameter and (my estimate) 1.5-2 m long. NASA considered fitting a shuttle with 2 pallets for missions of up to 28 days. Another limit is life support: CO2 removal is done by lithium hydroxide canisters which need replacement every 12 hours.

So the Shuttle needs a lot of consumables to keep working. I suspect when the Shuttle was docked to the ISS, it relied on the ISS life support system (haven't been able to find references for this yet).

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  • $\begingroup$ Other key consumables are hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide for the propulsion systems. The toilet would also not support extended missions (there was an EDO toilet but it wasn't popular). Bottom line, it wouldn't be completely impossible but IMHO not practical. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 14 '15 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble I suppose a shuttle and a station, days or decades in orbit, are two different concepts with many different requirements. Two point three extra Soyuz launches to get the shuttle crew back home doesn't help the economics of it. And add to that the lost museum revenues during centuries. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Mar 14 '15 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ Fun fact: NASA specifically avoided having the Shuttle launch, land or in orbit on new year's eve. The Shuttle computers were not exactly state-of-the-art and NASA wasn't really sure what the roll-over to a new year would do to them. They even moved STS 116's target date to two weeks earlier to avoid this possibility. $\endgroup$ – JDT Mar 19 '15 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ The "year-end-roll-over" (YERO) was a giant bugaboo the whole time I worked at JSC. The basic problem was that the onboard computers' clocks rolled to day 366 and the shuttle Master Timing Unit rolled to day 1. (I may have gotten this backwards, but you get the idea) Boom, incompatibility and massive issues. Every time it looked like a possibility, off to the simulators to see if it would cause a problem. The only mission that even got close was STS-103, which landed on 27 December 1999. A solution was proposed in 2007 but never used. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Apr 30 '17 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Discovery is on display at The Smithsonian's Udvar Hazey facility. Visiting it is free. So there is no "museum revenue" happening there. I'm not sure about her sisters. $\endgroup$ – Erik Jun 6 '18 at 3:16

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