Space.com has, nested in its article on the discovery of Columbia’s data recorder, an interesting bit of info. At the end of the article, they refer to General Kostelnik holding a conference in New Orleans this week on Shuttle life extension efforts. The interesting bit is the projected extend-to date, which is given here as 2015. The Shuttle is, once again, compared to the B-52 in terms of life-extension and upgrades and such.
2020? 2025? 2015? Who cares? So long as NASA doesn’t replace it with another NASA-only vehicle, and doesn’t try to maintain its human spaceflight monopoly to whatever end-date it ultimately chooses. In a perverse way, the longer the agency saddles itself with the Shuttle, the better it is for spaceflight overall. As the costs of maintaining and upgrading the fleet increase over time, the agency will have less and less money to spend on a replacement vehicle that undermines the market for private efforts…which could very well lead to vehicles that open space to settlement.
(Oh, and it really is interesting that the data recorder has been found. Hopefully they will get some useful info out of it. Despite its flaws, the Shuttle is presently the only game in town — a game which is suspended indefinitely, and needs to be resumed as soon as is practical.)