How fast could the Space Shuttle be made operational again, in an emergency?

Okay, weird technical question time—say, for whatever reason, we needed to get one of the Space Shuttles reactivated and launched (and later returned), ASAP. Assuming this wasn’t secret, and had all the material and financial support it needed, how long would this take?

Starting from right…now. November 27, 2011, 8:19 AM EST.

More IMHO than GQ, but …

If we started now, while most of the old support gear & people are still readily available, it would be some time interval. If we started 3 years from now with more stuff sold off & people retired or dispersed, it might be 5x longer.

ISTR that when they added that last flight to the manifest there was a flail in the trade press that if they didn’t add that last flight by about 18 months before the planned launch date they wouldn’t be able to get it done without a big gap.

IOW, it took 18 months to set up a single mission back when they were in full swing. So that’d be a lower bound. At least assuming business as usual. If what you really mean is a crash re-start, where they could throw infinite money & people at it & work round the clock they might be able to cut that down to 12 months.

But it’d probaby take 3-9 months to get the team together. Also there were parts of the infrastructure which took *years *to build. If any of that has been torn down or repurposed, that might take longer than refurbishing a vehicle.

ISTR there were exactly 2 Shuttle-capable lauch pads at canveral. At least one of which has been modified a bunch for the next thing (the next generation Moon missions).

This is true. Launch Complexes 39A and 39B were both used for Shuttle launches (they were also used in the Apollo program). 39B was decommissioned in 2007. When I was at Cape Canaveral in April, a lot of the Shuttle pad equipment had been stripped from the site. They had done some work on the pad to add equipment (such as lightning towers) for the Constellation program, but with the cancellation of that program, I believe that the new construction work ceased. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia, from 2009, showing that conversion work in progress:

Launch Complex 39A was used for the last shuttle launches. I don’t know if anything has been done to that pad since the final Shuttle launch.

Related question: If, hypothetically, a manned Moon landing were desired ASAP, how much time and money would that take?

The ability to make external fuel tanks has been gone for several years. NASA made as many as they could find storage room for and disasembled the production equipment. It was all unique equipment and the facility has been re-purposed. Neither the equipment nor the personnel are available any longer. I have no idea how long it would take to build an external tank, but the effort would almost be starting from scratch.

I will point out that NASA carefully kept the main engines from the shuttle and plan to use the engines in future boosters. The museum pieces have replicas. Obviously they would be expendable in that role, but the engines are available.

The shuttle team is already being dismantled and laid off. Without those skills in place any launch of the shuttle would be nearly impossible.

How would that team ever be reassembled in an emergency? These 3,350 laid off people will be finding new jobs outside NASA.

Haven’t all of the surviving Shuttles been doled out to science museums?

What are the chances that all of the internal components will be left intact? I know that if I was with a museum and tasked with hanging a retired spacecraft from the ceiling, I’d want to gut the thing to make it as light as possible. Or, if the intent was to make it into a “walk-through” exhibit, what systems and/or structural parts might have to come out in order to allow the public easy and safe access to the interior?

The announcement of where the last four Shuttles were going was made in April. I’m assuming preparations such as removing any hazardous components such as exploding bolts and fuel tanks/piping are already underway, so the question of being able to re-commission one may come down to which one has been least-disassembled?

Pad 39A has been mothballed, and remains in much the same condition as it was for the last launch. The claim is that there isn’t even money to take it apart. As noted, 39B is essentially gone. It has already been converted back to an Apollo era style pad, and the launcher built atop a mobile platform continues to be worked upon. They were trundling this new launcher about KSC last week testing the structure in response to movement.

If you wanted a last emergency launch, right now, you could probably get one in six months. There is a lot of stuff from the shuttle that is left with the intent that it be used in the SLS programme - it that ever gets funded. There is one remaining external tank, the solid fuel booster casings have been mothballed with the intent that they may be used on the SLS, and the main engines and reaction control systems have been removed from the orbiters and preserved in a state that they can be used again. There would be a significant lead time to start production of the propellant grains for the SRBs. So right now, if we needed to send Bruce Willis out there to save the planet, it might get done in six months. Probably only with a lot of procedure being waived. If you wanted more flights, external tank production would need restarting. There is one nearly finished tank, and the production facilities are intended to support the SLS programme - the design of the SLS uses what is essentially a long version of the ET. So although production has ceased, the tooling still exists. Probably take a year to restart.

As has been noted. The personnel have already started to disperse. If there were a national emergency you could probably get enough people together - now. Soon the skills will start to be harder and harder to muster. A lot of key people need current certifications to be considered fit to do their jobs, and whilst much could be waived in an emergency, there will become a time when it just isn’t viable without a very considerable lead time. If it were not a national emergency, and simply a matter of needing very much to do one more launch, probably more than a year. And about $5 billion.

Getting to the Moon? About ten years. Maybe longer with current NASA management. There is simply not the flexibility or the drive. I guess that if they discovered a large black slab 1x4x9 standing on the moon, the possibility of refurbishing some of the gear from the last two unlaunched Apollo missions that is scattered about is there. That would probably take about five years. Given that the Russian engines from the N1 are perfectly usable, the F1 and J2 engines could probably be refurbished and got going. However 40 years mouldering in the Southern heat probably hasn’t done the launch vehicles much good, so they are probably not going to be salvageable. There is enough gear that you could afford to test one before doing it for real. On the other hand there is a lot of existing well developed launch capability. If all you wanted to do was get to the moon ASAP, and money were no object, you could probably put together a mission based upon man rating Atlas, and using both Atlas and Delta 4 Heavy to loft enough hardware to be assembled into a viable mission. Potentially very expensive, and still maybe five years.

The Orbiters have been assigned to museums; I don’t think that any have been delivered yet (and, as you note, there’s significant de-commissioning work which needs to be done on them before they’re shipped out). The question obviously is which one is still closest to flyable condition – I’d guess Atlantis, as it last flew in July. (Endeavour last flew in early June, and Discovery in March).

With an unlimited budget and an unlimited tolerance for risk, I’m saying five years. Three years to build the equipment and gather the raw materials needed to build the vehicles, a year to build the vehicles and a year to spend shooting them at the moon every couple of months until one succeeded.

Apart from the launch infrastructure and skilled labor issues brought up by previous posters, one of the significant shortfalls would be propellants. While the cryogenic propellants for the main engines are easily manufactured, the propellant grade ammonium perchlorate oxidizer, granularized aluminum fuel, and polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN) binder may not be readily available in sufficient quantity to produce even two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB). Also, given that ATK has shut down the SRB production line with the defunding of the Ares I CLV and Ares V HLV boosters, a new production run would require requalification including sample testing and a static fire of at least a motor section. There are doubtless other material and component obsolescence issues as well with things like insulating tiles or avionics, although these could potentially be scavenged from other vehicles in the fleet for a one-off mission.

Although the External Tank (ET) production line was shut down, I suspect most of the tooling fixtures are still intact as both the Ares V core stage and several versions of the proposed Space Launch System use the current ET as the basis for those vehicles. I suspect an ET could be produced in 9-12 month time, assuming availability of the AL 2195 material (an aluminum-lithium alloy that was fairly exotic when first introduced but is not becoming increasingly used on commercial aircraft applications).

As for going to the Moon, neither the United States nor any other nation has a launch vehicle (much less a man-rated one) that is capable of lifting an Apollo-sized capsule with an LM and a trans-lunar injection (TLI) stage like the S-IVB into orbit. The proposed SLS could do this and would use predominantly Shuttle-based hardware, but even with an accelerated test program it is difficult to postulate this being implemented in less than 6-8 years. It is true that the Saturn V was developed in a shorter period, but this was a blank check crash effort, and quite frankly the Saturn V would not meet modern man-rating standards (though it would come closer than the STS). An alternative is multiple launches of an existing heavy launch vehicle like the Delta IV Heavy with an Earth Orbit Rendezvous of the capsule, lander, and translunar injection stage, but logistically this would be highly complex (especially as there are not three facilities capable of launching the D-IVH to the same azimuth).

There are alternatives, however. The Russian Energia rocket consisted of a core stage which used the RD-0120 LOX/LH2 engine and four or more RD-170 LOX/RP-1 Stage 0 boosters. The RD-0120, which is similar in designa and performance to but less complex than the SSME, is sadly out of production, but it could be easily replaced by the Rocketdyne RS-68 that is currently used on the Delta IV with only a very slight hit on performance. The RD-170 is still built in a slightly uprated version as the RD-171 in the Zenit SLV. Better yet, the Energia was quite modular owning to the throttleable liquid boosters, and so the vehicle can be scaled for different reference missions by adding or subtracting boosters and throttle profiles. Given that the propulsion engine systems are mature and robust (and most importantly, already man-rated0, it is conceivable to develop and test an Energia-like rocket in a 3-5 year timeframe.

Even better would be to go toward a simple, robust system like the Truax-designed Sea Dragon. The Sea Dragon traded high performance in favor of a large payload, simple pressure-fed propellants, and best of all, minimal infrastructure. Because it was floated out to sea and erected by ballast, it did not require expensive ground facilities, could be launched from a wide range of azimuths, could perform multiple sequential simultaneous launches, and otherwise simplified the logistical problems that plagued the STS. Truax didn’t intend the Sea Dragon to be man-rated but there is no reason that it could not be, especially since it would be feasible to add multiple redundant systems without a substantial weight penalty and it would be relatively simple to undergo an extensive launch test program at low cost with reusable assets. Truax actually tested a proof-of-concept vehicle called the Sea Bee, recovering and refurbishing for a total of seven launches. A modern version could take advantage of improved propulsion system that would allow near-optimal performance at both sea level and altitude, perhaps even leveraging off of a larger version of the aerospike engine that Rocketdyne designed and tested as an alternative to the complex ultra-high pressure staged combustion SSME design that was ultimately forced upon them by NASA. I would conservatively estimate that this could be put into production in 6-8 years, and perhaps practicable in 4-5 with sufficient impetus and resources…provided, of course, that the current prime contractor isn’t placed in charge.

None of this accounts for the TLI stage, although I’ve heard some rumblings about bringing the Agena back on production. (I think that’s wishful thinking, but I could be mistaken.) An enlarged Agena might be capable of serving as a TLI stage, or we could rebuild a S-IVB-type design using the J-2X or a vacuum-optimized RS-68. There is currently no lander design but that is less challenging than the CSM and launch vehicle in terms of capability. The biggest problem is what you are going to do on the surface. As we discovered in the later extended duration J-missions, the problem of lunar dust was an enormous hindrance and potentially even a safety hazard. Even longer missions or more extensive efforts would require some novel technologies and techniques to cope with the electrostatically charged powdered regolith.


These things that you are talking about do not exist. A single catastrophic failure would result in a halt to flights or production of months or years. And from an engineering standpoint, it is ethically unacceptable to certify a vehicle for manned flight until the technical community has high confidence in the reliability and robustness of the design. There is never reason to rush to failure, especially where lives are involved. This doesn’t mean that you have to tread so carefully that you never get anywhere, but it does mean that you should be able to show due diligence in testing and have run all identified high consequence risks to low probability.


Personally, while I could see reasons or situations why one might be reckless in pushing a manned spacecraft into service—it just probably wouldn’t be worth it. (Even if you don’t care about human lives, throwing all your efforts into slapdash spacecraft that keep exploding until one gets lucky enough to complete the mission is going to take longer than just doing a single, properly planned mission.)

It was noted in the early days of Apollo that getting to the moon was easy. The nuisance was the bit in Kennedy’s speech that spoke of “returning safely” that make it all so much harder. There was an almost serious proposal that they send a couple of guys along with a heap of supplies and then work out how to get them back later.

Which is six launches. The Apollo programme landed on the moon with its fifth use of a Saturn V. The difference being that they had a staged test plan and built on success, not failure. They knew about failure. The fire taught NASA a lot of difficult lessons, and the delay it imposed was sorely needed to get the rest of the programme back on track. History shows that NASA forgot those lessons a couple more times.

I’m curious about this. What aspects of the Saturn V fail here? Intrinsic design elements, or the lack of refinement that might have come with more launches and development? I know they had some vicious pogo problems, and the number of trouble free launches was perhaps a bit lower than one might like, but it sounds as if there are fundamental issues. The sheer length of the vehicle was a problem too I guess, with all sorts of evil loads as it slewed about the sky.

so what about getting people into orbit non-shuttle? How quickly could the US put up a Soyuz equivalent if they had to? Assume Russia / China / India wasn’t cooperating and the US alone had to get people into orbit for some reason. How many years? Or could it be done in months?

All you need is an oil drum to stick a guy in, and a big-ass railgun. The man will die in the process, but his body will hit orbit.

I think stranger’s post illustrates one key advantage that Apollo had that no subsequent effort will ever have. Back then there were no competing programs that could agrue with. Nasa. Once nasa picked a step they were locked in for better or worse. There were lots of ideas but once nasa picked a solution there was no time wasted studying the problem furter. Now there are numerous approaches and decades of studies and prototypes to evaluate. Fortunately for most of the astronauts, nasa mostly chose wisely.

While I respect the knowledge people replying to this thread undoubtedly show in vast amounts, I don’t think anybody’s thinking very creatively. There’s lots of talk about existing programs and safety measures. But the question said “ASAP”. You’d have to assume a lot of this would be circumnavigated and materials, personnel and working practices would be brought in/optimised thanks to government trampling over existing laws to get things done quickly.

What about this: how long would it take if, say, every man woman and child in the US and every penny of the country’s wealth were to be plouhed into this effort? I know that might sound ridiculous but if the answer to this is any shorter than some of these answers suggest than the OP and the moon mission question have not been answered properly yet!

I freely admit there may be one or more specific barriers that are unachievable even in those circumstances. If so than I’m wrong. But I doubt it. There are always alternative solutions to specific problems.

You mean if, say, an asteroid the size of Texas were suddenly discovered, and it was learned that it would be plowing into the Earth in 18 days?