March 10, 2010

Shuttle Program Could Keep Going With More Money

A senior NASA manager said Tuesday that they could continue to add more flights to their schedule if the nation is willing to keep dishing out $200 million per month, which could stop the retirement of the shuttle program later this year.

NASA plans to retire the shuttle fleet in September, after four more trips to the International Space Station. Some Congressional politicians, however, are pushing for more missions to fill a gap between the end of the shuttle program and the nation's next manned spaceship, which could be years away.

President Barack Obama announced last month that the budget for NASA's Constellation program would be terminated. Constellation would have been the successor to the shuttle program. Instead, he directed NASA to look to commercial companies for getting men into space.

NASA manager John Shannon todl reporters recently that money is the key to keeping the shuttle program alive. "The shuttle program is fairly expensive. We burn at about a $200 million-a-month rate. So that gives you a base of about $2.4 billion per year ... almost irregardless of how many flights," Shannon told The Associated Press.

"Where that money comes from is the big question," He added. NASA has an extra fuel tank and boosters, which are set aside for a rescue mission for the last shuttle crew. But, if that set is not needed, it could be used for one additional flight to transport supplies to the ISS, he explained.

The shuttle is by far the biggest station supplier. In fact, some of the biggest pieces of equipment can only fit into a shuttle's cargo hold. As for NASA's astronauts, they are already catching flights on Russian Soyuz ships.

To add more flights, tank production would have to be restarted, which will take about two years to get underway. To avoid a lengthy gap, NASA could space out the remaining missions, Shannon said. As for shuttle parts, the suppliers are still in business and could get production underway once again, he said.

Until something says otherwise, NASA is proceeding as if there are only four more flights in the schedule. The next mission is set for an April 5 launch, which will carry spare parts and experiments for the ISS. Obama is planning to visit Florida during the mission to talk about his space vision.

Another launch is targeted for mid-May, and a launch scheduled for July, is in jeopardy of falling behind schedule. A significant delay would almost ensure that shuttle flights would be pushed past September.


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