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Scripps Howard News Service January 26, 2006

NASA trying to look beyond shuttle program

By Lee Bowman

When the family car breaks down too many times and repair costs stack up, many people face the quandary of paying the maintenance costs or putting the money toward a new automobile.

But at NASA, officials are trying to keep space shuttles far older than most cars on the road today going until at least the end of the decade, while hurrying to build and fly a new reusable passenger launch vehicle to replace the shuttles. All this, under a virtually flat budget.

Most experts say the agency really has no great options for reliably putting astronauts or large sophisticated cargoes into space over the next 10 years or so.

Last July's mission of the shuttle Discovery, intended to show that the flaking insulation-foam damage that doomed Columbia and its seven-member crew three years ago, instead revealed more problems with external tanks that led to continued grounding.

With engineers still assessing how to protect foam around parts of the tanks, NASA is hoping to launch Discovery again in May. But that schedule could slip to July.

Meanwhile, supplies and crew replacements for the International Space Station are dependent on Russian spacecraft, with the next launch of a Soyuz capsule set for March.

No new components of the space station can be launched until the shuttles are cleared for regular flights. The situation chafes partners like the European and Japanese space agencies, each with sophisticated modules that cost more than $1 billion to build gathering dust until they can hitch a ride.

And while NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has pledged to hurry along development of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle so it's flying within a year or two of the final shuttle missions, many observers are doubtful the timetable can be met.

"We're paying the Russians $21 million an astronaut to go to the space station. We're called the only superpower, and yet we don't have space flight capability - this is not the message to send to our young engineers and scientists," said former shuttle astronaut and space-station construction worker Tom Jones, now a space consultant.

On the other hand, every shuttle launch costs about $500 million, not even counting the money being spent to upgrade the fleet since the loss of Columbia.

Jones and other advocates of space exploration worry that the longer the shuttle stands down, the more attractive it becomes for political leaders to abandon the program.

"It seems to me that after this last flight, NASA's painted themselves into a corner on the shuttle," said John Pike, an analyst with Globalsecurity.org. "They don't want to fly it if it's manifestly unsafe, but they also don't want to spend a lot of money trying to fix something that they're only going to use a few more times."

Estimates vary on just how many more shuttle flights would have to be made to "complete" the $100 billion space station. The number has been pared from 28 to 18 since the Columbia accident. NASA's timetable for phasing out shuttles is based on an assumption that five flights a year could be sustained after this year. A 19th flight to repair the popular Hubble Space Telescope is also still on the books.

NASA has been working on a new spacecraft to carry people at least since the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident. But with no clear mission for the new shuttle, the project has gone through false starts and feeble funding over the years.

Jones said that with President Bush's stated goals of a return to the moon and a mission to Mars within 20 years, the agency at least has marks to shoot for, although he's not sure they're the right goals.

"Until we're more certain of the resources the moon really can offer, I'd rather see us use the space station as a test ground and jumping-off point for more commonsense human missions like a trip to a near-Earth asteroid, or out to the midpoint between Earth and the sun's gravity," said Jones, whose memoir "Sky Walking" will be published next month.

"There are some stadium-sized space rocks out there a crew could go to and back within 90 days, and we'd have some practical experience with what could be done if an asteroid ever was found on a collision course with the planet."

NASA seems to be taking a more pragmatic approach of using existing staged rocket boosters left over from the shuttles and coupling them with a modified Apollo-style capsule to serve as a crew module, Jones noted.

He agrees with space-state lawmakers like Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican, that NASA needs to keep the shuttle program's work force and skills intact as the transition to the next crewed vehicle takes place, and that the shuttle should keep going if there are significant delays with the next spacecraft.

"My worry is that if we stand down the shuttles entirely and something drastic happens on the space station, like a debris strike, for instance, the Russian support ships won't be able to respond. You can't do repairs up there without a shuttle," Jones said.

"Having any kind of a gap, whether it's three years or longer, between the shuttles and the CEV is really dangerous," Pike agreed. "It might make sense to an accountant, but not to a space cadet."

 


Copyright 2006, Scripps Howard News Service