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STS-130 shuttle launch
With last month’s launch of STS-130, only four shuttle missions remain, unless shuttle supporters can find enough support in Congress to extend the program. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Shuttle supporters’ last stand?


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When the White House released its fiscal year 2011 budget proposal last month, most of the focus was on the major changes contained within it, including the cancellation of the entire Constellation exploration program and a new focus on technology development and commercial crew efforts. In the days and weeks that followed, the discussion and debate has focused on those changes and the impact they will have on the space industry and the nation.

Recently, though, a new element of the debate has emerged over one part of the budget that reflected a continuation of existing policy: the plan to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010. While that had long seemed settled policy to most in the space community, there is a new push underway to keep the shuttle flying beyond this year, and perhaps for several more years. It’s an effort emboldened by the reaction to date to NASA’s new plan in some quarters, but also motivated by the shrinking manifest of missions and a desire to do something before it’s too late—a time that others believe has already come and gone.

A new bid to save the shuttle

The shuttle’s fate seemed set in January 2004, when President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration. “The Shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station,” he said in his speech at NASA Headquarters unveiling the Vision. “In 2010, the Space Shuttle—after nearly 30 years of duty—will be retired from service.”

A new element of the debate has emerged over one part of the budget that reflected a continuation of existing policy: the plan to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010.

While other parts of the Vision faltered, that remained largely on schedule. There are currently four shuttle flights left, with the next, STS-131, scheduled for launch early next month. NASA’s current schedule calls for the last mission, STS-133, to launch in mid-September (although it might end up flying before an earlier mission, STS-134, because of problems with its payload). While delays are almost inevitable given the past performance of the shuttle program, it seems likely the last shuttle mission will launch by the end of this year or, at the very latest, early next year.

That same speech, though, also sowed the seeds for efforts to keep the shuttle flying. In the very next sentence after announcing plans for the shuttle’s retirement, he talked about the planned development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which would “conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014”. Thus, inherent in the Vision was also a period—“the Gap”, as it came to be known—when NASA would not be launching humans.

The Gap was a particular concern on Florida’s Space Coast, where people feared the economic fallout of the loss of thousands of jobs when the shuttle retired and no program to immediately succeed it. Those fears became more intense as the shuttle’s retirement date edged closer and as the Gap threatened to grow longer because of delays in developing the Orion CEV and its Ares 1 launcher. While NASA aimed for Ares 1/Orion to enter service in 2015, the Augustine Committee report last year concluded it was more likely to be 2017 before it was flying. The Gap had become a yawning abyss.

When the White House unveiled a new NASA plan that canceled Constellation outright, a bad situation for many became even worse: the Gap was starting to look like a cliff. Not only was the shuttle still scheduled to retire within a year, there was no firm plan to replace it, only plans to develop commercial systems. While those systems, perhaps using existing vehicles like the Atlas 5, might be ready to fly long before Constellation was likely to enter service, it seemed little consolation to those either directly affected by the shuttle’s impending retirement or otherwise concerned about the loss of access to the ISS caused by the Gap.

Those concerns have crystallized in new efforts in Congress and elsewhere to keep the shuttle flying before its scheduled retirement. Last week a group of members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, asking that he convene a group of agency experts to perform a 30-day study on alternative options for human spaceflight, one that would be completed before President Obama holds his space conference in Florida on April 15. While not explicitly endorsing a shuttle extension, the letter did call for a plan that would “ensure uninterrupted, independent U.S. human space flight access to the International Space Station and beyond”, which would appear to imply additional shuttle flights to maintain that “uninterrupted” access.

Others have been more explicit. Last week the two House members who serve Florida’s Space Coast, Reps. Suzanne Kosmas (D) and Bill Posey (R), introduced legislation that would authorize an extension of the shuttle. HR 4804, the “Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act of 2010”, includes provisions for continuing to fly the shuttle for several more years at a reduced flight rate of no more than two missions a year for potentially several more years, among other sections dealing with the ISS, heavy-lift launch vehicle development, and commercial crew development efforts.

Inherent in the Vision was also a period—“the Gap”, as it came to be known—when NASA would not be launching humans.

“We need a plan to close the space gap that actually maintains America’s ability to send American astronauts into space,” Posey said in a statement. “By continuing to fly the Shuttle until the next generation space vehicle is ready to launch, we can continue to operate our space program without interruption, the loss of highly skilled American jobs, or ceding ground to Russia or China.”

“While most agree that use of the Space Station should be extended through 2020, there is only one existing vehicle that we know can fully service and support the ISS, and that is the Shuttle,” Kosmas said in her own statement.

The House bill is identical to S. 3068, introduced in the Senate a week earlier by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). “This must not be an ‘either or’ proposition where we are forced to choose between continuing to fly the shuttle to service the station and maintain our independence in reaching space, or investing in the next generation of space vehicle,” she said in a statement upon the bill’s introduction. “We can and must do both.”

While Floridians may be motivated to extend the shuttle in order to preserve its jobs, Hutchison appears more concerned about access to and utilization of the ISS, the US elements of which are classified as a national laboratory in large part due to her efforts. “There is only one answer” to the question of how to maximize the use of the station, Jeff Bingham, a staffer on the Senate Commerce Committee, said at a Washington event in January. “It will not surprise you to know that we believe that answer is to keep flying the shuttle.”

Mixed messages at NASA?

Added to the mix have been comments in recent days by several NASA officials that, to some people and at some levels, appeared to be contradictory. It started with a response to a question about shuttle extension posed to NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver after a speech March 4 at a breakfast event in Washington hosted by Women in Aerospace.

“The first question I asked when I came back to NASA was, ‘Could we extend the shuttle?’” Garver said. “I was told by the entire shuttle NASA folks that, in fact, that time had come and gone. It was not an issue of money at that point, it was an issue of second-tier suppliers, there would be at least a two-year gap between our last flight and the next one, et cetera.” That situation, she said, was a result a previous policies: “We inherited what we inherited.”

On Tuesday, though, shuttle program manager John Shannon suggested something a little different. At a press conference about the next shuttle mission, he said that concerns about the shuttle supply chain were overstated. “There’s this misconception that there’s all this big supply chain that was shuttle-specific only,” he said. In fact, he said, most of their suppliers were large companies whose shuttle work was only a small part of their overall business.

Shannon also addressed the issue of recertifying the shuttle, something the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended in its final report if NASA decided to continue flying the shuttle after 2010, a process he said had been ongoing at various levels since 2005. “We feel like we’ve addressed recertification” through that effort, he said.

“This must not be an ‘either or’ proposition where we are forced to choose between continuing to fly the shuttle to service the station and maintain our independence in reaching space, or investing in the next generation of space vehicle,” Sne. Hutchison said. “We can and must do both.”

“The real issue we would have would be just in manufacturing,” he said, specifically in the external tanks. He confirmed that there would be a gap of about two years in order to restart external tank production. An even bigger issue, though, would be the cost extending the shuttle: about $200 million per month, he said, an amount that could be decreased, but not significantly, by reducing the shuttle flight rate to two missions a year. “Where that money comes from is the big question.”

Those comments, though, appeared to conflict with Garver’s earlier assertion that a decision for extending the shuttle “had come and gone”, and that an extension was still feasible. Shannon sought to clarify his statements by posting several comments to a discussion of the subject at Space Politics. “I have also been on record as opposing extension” of the shuttle program, he said, citing three reasons: that the shuttle is “overqualified” for the task of carry cargo and crews to and from the ISS, the costs associated with keeping the shuttle flying, and a desire to avoid rehiring shuttle workers only to lay them off again in a couple of years, “brutal emotional events” he had no desire to repeat.

On Thursday, David Radzanowski, deputy associate administrator for program intergration in the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD), also addressed the topic of shuttle extension as part of a panel at the Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington. “SOMD believes that if the nation told us to extend the space shuttle, we could do it technically,” he said. “But the reality is that we can do anything if we’re given enough money and enough workforce.”

Radzanowski reiterated that there would be a gap of two to three years if the shuttle was extended in order to manufacture additional tanks, and that the cost of a shuttle extension would be “well over $2.5 billion a year”. He then referred to his fellow panelists, the heads of the aeronautics, exploration systems, and science mission directorates at the agency. “That additional money would probably have to come from their directorates,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely in the budget environment that we’re in that we’re going to get additional dollars.”

He also added one more concern: safety. “Our own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has essentially said that they don’t support extending the shuttle beyond its current manifest. Essentially they said that the point to make the decision to extend the shuttle has passed.”

An uphill fight

Will members of Congress be successful in their bid to force a shuttle extension upon NASA? It’s worth noting that this is not the first effort by some members to legislate a shuttle extension. In late 2007 Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), in his final term in office, introduced legislation that mandated two shuttle flights a year through 2015. Last April, Posey, who now represents Weldon’s district, introduced a similar bill along with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). Both bills were referred to the House Science and Technology Committee, which took no action on them.

“SOMD believes that if the nation told us to extend the space shuttle, we could do it technically,” Radzanowski said. “But the reality is that we can do anything if we’re given enough money and enough workforce.”

The prospects, at least in the House, of the latest shuttle extension legislation may not be much better. The bill does have over a dozen cosponsors, the majority of whom are from Florida or districts in other states with an interest in NASA (with a few others, like Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents the first district of Maine and not someone usually associated with space issues.) Missing among the initial set of cosponsors, though, is the leadership, both Republican and Democratic, of the science committee, where the bill has been referred: suggesting a potentially uphill battle to win support for its provisions.

The Senate version has no cosponsors, but Hutchison is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, and thus is in a position to help get the bill through committee. She has also worked well in the past with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the chair of the space subcommittee that would take up the bill.

Nelson, in a floor speech last week, hinted that he would be open to a minimal version of shuttle extension: one additional flight beyond the four already manifested, using a tank that would be used for a launch-on-demand rescue mission for the last currently-scheduled mission. “The risk to safety is minimal on a fifth shuttle flight,” Nelson said. “The President should announce he is asking NASA to do that fifth flight.”

Just one additional flight, though, is unlikely to satisfy those worried about the economic impact of the shuttle’s retirement nor those concerned about access to and utilization of the ISS after the shuttles stop flying. Whether they can muster the votes—and the funding—needed to overturn a decision made over six years ago is just one battle of many that will be fought on Capitol Hill in the coming months about the future of NASA and the country’s human spaceflight program.


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