January 9, 2009

NASA Keeping Shuttle Costs at $3 Billion a Year

NASA's chief said Thursday, that the cost of continuing the life of the space shuttle past next year's planned retirement is $3 billion a year plus extending the risk of a deadly accident.

Michael Griffin, a NASA Administrator, told an industry group that NASA has looked into what it would take to keep flying the aging shuttle past 2010.  Otherwise, it will mean five years on relying on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

President George W. Bush declared that the U.S. should head back to the moon in a new spaceship.  In order to pay for this, the current space shuttle would have to be retired.

President-elect Barack Obama has proposed delaying the shuttle's retirement.  He and others have expressed concerns about the gap between the shuttle's retirement and the new ship's maiden launch.

The new spaceship called Orion will not be ready until March 2015, according to current schedules.  Griffin said that the government spends an additional $3 billion over the next two years on the new ship, that first launch could happen a year earlier.  He said building the rocket would cost $2.7 billion.

Griffin said that there are geopolitical reasons for extending the shuttle's life.  However, there are engineering reasons to not do that.  Keeping the shuttle flying would divert effort away from a new ship to one that is almost 30 years old.

Officials said that the choice will be up to the new president and Congress.  They added that NASA is finishing up a study on what extending the space shuttle program would entail, which will be released later this month.

Adding new shuttle flights means more rolls of the dice that there will be a deadly accident.

"We would have a one-in-eight chance of losing the crew in one of the 10 flights," Griffin said. He said that's based on the current risk, about 1 in 80, of a shuttle accident with each flight.

John Logsdon, the Smithsonian Institution space scholar, said that It is expected that NASA will get some additional money because Obama has promised an extra $2 billion for at least one year.  The President-elect's promise was for at least one additional space shuttle flight, but may stop at one, Logsdon said.

According to Logsdon, Obama will focus on the new ship instead of extending the shuttle at all.

There are nine flights scheduled through May 31, 2010 with three main shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.

Scott Horowitz, former NASA exploration chief, said he worries that if the shuttle flies for five more years it would delay the first launch of the new spaceship.  That is because crucial people and key equipment is needed to develop Orion but is also being used for current shuttle flights.

However, NASA's current associate administrator for exploration, Doug Cook, said it would be tough, but "we'd find a way to do it."

Horowitz thinks that the most logical solution would be to extend the shuttle's life by one more year and accelerate the new ship's development a year.  He said that this would cost $6 billion and shrink the gap to three years.

Cook said that to speed up development, the new administration would have to commit money in the next few months, otherwise it would be too late to launch by 2014.


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