Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kosmas Urges Congress To Extend Shuttle Operations

Florida Today reports that Representative Suzanne Kosmas "urged the the U.S. House budget committee to add $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2011 to keep the nation's shuttle fleet flying in support of President Obama's plan to extend International Space Station operations through 2020."

As I wrote on March 2, President Bush cancelled the Shuttle program in January 2004 after the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that "the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system" and has inherent design flaws that cannot be overcome. Since then, NASA has been preparing for the program's retirement. Only four flights are left, and many of the contractors who support the program have gone out of business.

A February 24 Florida Today article by space correspondent Todd Halvorson concluded that attempting to extend the Shuttle program would take years and might be cost prohibitive.

If NASA got the go-ahead today, and maintained its current schedule, there would still be a gap between the last scheduled flight in September and any newly-added missions. The biggest schedule hurdle: building a new external tank from scratch can take two to three years.

NASA could stretch out the remaining four shuttle flights, keeping its shuttle team employed. But that might be cost-prohibitive, driving the cost of single missions up into the billion-dollar ballpark.

Manufacturing lines would have to be restarted. Vendors would have to be persuaded to resume small production runs, likely at premium prices, or new suppliers would have to be found. Then, those parts would have to be certified for flight.

Obama's FY 2011 space budget proposes to extend the life of the ISS to 2020 but to retire the Shuttle as NASA has planned for the last six years. NASA would rely on Russian flights contracted by the Bush Administration in April 2007, which were intended to cover the period until a new U.S. Low Earth Orbit vehicle was ready to fly to ISS.

That vehicle was intended to be Ares I, part of the Constellation program, but the Augustine Panel report found that Ares I wouldn't be ready to fly until after the Bush Administration's termination date for ISS in 2016. Obama proposes to find other alternatives, including a domestic commercial program such as SpaceX. Another possibility is to convert the European Space Agency's Ariane V rocket to fly a crewed vehicle, which was part of its initial design when ESA planned to build its own Hermes spaceplane.

Kosmas' district includes Kennedy Space Center but not neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That's within the district of Congressman Bill Posey, who testified before the House Budget Committee today. Posey urged the committee to support extending Shuttle as well as Constellation, of which Ares I was a part. Posey claimed that the estimated $1.3 billion cost of flying two Shuttle flights per year through 2020 "can be cut significantly based on discussions with the contractors who currently operate the Shuttle for NASA." He didn't say how they claimed to do that, and why they haven't done it for decades, nor did he address the inherent design flaw that led the 2003 Columbia board to urge a replacement vehicle for Shuttle.

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