Shuttle Atlantis launches into space
Shuttle Atlantis launches September 9, 2006. Ben Cooper

It seems like a good idea; after all, not many vessels are capable of sustaining life in space, so why not recycle what we’ve got? Unfortunately, the current fleet just isn’t cut out for long-term habitation. When NASA retires the three remaining space shuttles next year, the craft will be sent to museums.

The main problem is power. Each shuttle has three fuel cells that mix liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and that reaction generates all the crew’s electricity (as well as its clean drinking water). But the shuttle stocks only enough oxygen and hydrogen to keep the fuel cells running for 14 days. After that, the shuttle would go completely dark. It wouldn’t be able to maneuver or send radio transmissions, and lifesupport systems would shut down. “You couldn’t even cook breakfast,” says Michael Curie, a spokesperson for NASA space operations. “You wouldn’t be able to return to Earth. Basically, the shuttle would be space junk.”

You could restock the fuel tanks, of course, but the shuttles themselves have served as NASA’s biggest orbital delivery trucks, and no appropriate replacement is in the works. The International Space Station gets around the energy issue by using its giant solar panels to charge its batteries. Outfitting the shuttles with a similar system would take quite a bit of engineering. “At that point,” Curie says, “it would make more sense to start from scratch.”

But what really makes a shuttle station a bad idea is the lack of amenities. The shuttles don’t have room for all the exercise equipment that astronauts need to stave off rapid bone and muscle loss. They don’t have individual bedroom compartments like the ISS does; to get some shuteye, astronauts instead zip themselves in sleeping bags and Velcro themselves to a wall. They don’t even have a garbage chute. “They’d have to figure out some way to bundle up waste—human waste included—and toss it out a hatch,” Curie says. “And because there isn’t a launcher to shoot the waste into the atmosphere to burn up, it would just float and collect around the outside of the station.”

Have a science question you’ve always wondered about? Send a tweet to @PopSciFYIGuy or email to