NASA mulls 2010 shuttle retirement plans

NASA managers are expected to stop work that was dependent on an extension of space shuttle flights beyond the current 2010 deadline.

NASA managers are meeting this week to discuss the impact of ending projects that have been keeping open the possibility of an extension of the shuttle program, which is currently planned to end in 2010.

NASA faces several challenges, including a tight budget, a 2010 deadline to end space shuttle operations, and a lack of concrete political support to fund additional flights or extend the current manifest. In a note to shuttle managers and engineers that was obtained by CBS News, shuttle program manager John Shannon outlined the issues in stark terms:

You have heard me say that 'hope is not an effective management tool' on many occasions. It is my position that we cannot continue to spend money to retain the capability to fly additional space shuttle missions, hoping that someone will recognize the national assets we are giving up.

We have to take our destiny in our own hands and manage within the limited budget we have been given and ensure that we will fly the full manifest and leave the International Space Station in the best configuration possible.

NASA's most recent authorization act said the space agency should take no action that "would preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the space shuttle after fiscal year 2010" if the next president--Barack Obama, as it turned out--decided to delay the orbiter's planned retirement. Depending on how one does the accounting, that directive had the potential to cost the agency nearly $90 million.

The Obama administration has expressed support for the addition of one shuttle flight to carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an already-built, high-priority physics experiment, to the International Space Station.

But the Office of Management and Budget said the administration is sticking with the 2010 shuttle retirement date. The Bush administration's deadline was the end of fiscal 2010, or September 30, 2010. The Obama administration has since told the space agency the deadline is the end of calendar 2010. Between now and then, NASA has nine shuttle flights planned, including the AMS mission. But only eight missions are currently funded. Money for the AMS flight has not yet been appropriated.

"If we're going to make this thing work, we've got to focus 100 percent on those nine flights and make sure we get them done," said a senior NASA manager who spoke on background and asked not to be identified. "We can no longer continue to split our attention both ways. We're going to have to have a hard discussion with our folks...we're going to have to make those nine flights real. And that's what we're going to go do."

The Obama administration has offered little visible guidance beyond support for the AMS flight and the shuttle deadline clarification. The president has yet to name a replacement for former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, the Bush-administration appointee whose tenure ended with Obama's inauguration.

Griffin inherited the job of overseeing the post-Columbia decision to complete the space station and retire the shuttle by the end of 2010 and to develop a new spacecraft to replace the shuttle. That vehicle, the Apollo-like Orion capsule and its Ares 1 rocket, is intended to ferry astronauts to and from the space station and, eventually, on to the moon.

But the Orion/Ares system will not be ready for use until 2015. During the five-year gap between the shuttle's retirement and the debut of the new rocket, NASA and its international partners will have to hitch rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Concern about reliance on the Russians has prompted several key lawmakers to lobby for additional funding to extend shuttle operations, stretching out the current manifest to close or narrow the gap. Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) introduced legislation earlier this month to extend shuttle operations beyond 2010 and to accelerate development of the Ares/Orion spacecraft.

But so far, no such funding--or even money to cover the costs of simply keeping the extension option open--has been approved.

Complicating the picture for NASA planners, there is a very real possibility that one or two of the final shuttle missions currently envisioned will slip into the October-December 2010 time frame, i.e., the first quarter of fiscal 2011. There is no money in NASA's projected 2011 budget for any shuttle operations beyond $300 million or so intended for retirement activities.

As a result, NASA now plans to terminate work that kept open the option of a shuttle extension when the current legislation expires at the end of the month.

"We don't have enough money to keep carrying various options to extend and add additional flights," said the NASA manager who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Shuttle program managers were scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center for a quarterly budget review.

The final missions on NASA's shuttle manifest are critical flights to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station, and NASA managers say they do not want to risk losing one because money that could have helped cope with technical problems or launch delays had been diverted to building hardware for flights that are not expected to be approved.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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