Save the Space Shuttles! But How to Pay?

Photo: Save the Space Shuttles: White House Panel: Augustine Commission Says Reverse Bush Plan to Retire Shuttles by 2010

NASA has been operating for the last five years on a deadline -- orders from the White House to retire the space shuttle fleet by 2010 and return to the business of exploring, using ships from its new Constellation program to set up a base on the moon, then eventually go on to Mars and beyond.

That plan is taking a big hit today.

A commission chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, asked by President Obama to lay out the future of NASA's human space program, honed its vision at its closing meeting in Washington.

It will lay out about half a dozen options for the administration when it briefs senior officials on Friday.

In one, reversing the "Vision for Space Exploration" laid out by President Bush in 2004, Augustine and his colleagues recommend the space shuttle fleet not be grounded in 2010 -- which they say could lead to a rush to finish building the International Space Station.

Haste makes waste; NASA still must fly seven shuttle missions to do the job, and the commission says there could be fatal accidents if those flights are crammed into a year's time. It recommends that the flights be allowed to stretch into 2011 -- and that NASA consider keeping shuttles flying, perhaps twice a year, until their replacement is ready.

Next up for NASA is a program called Constellation, which replaces the shuttles with a conical capsule, called Orion, and a new, powerful series of Ares boosters.

But the project is far behind schedule. The first Orion flight with astronauts, NASA has said, will not happen before 2015. During the wait after the shuttle program ends, American astronauts would have to hitch rides on Russian rockets to have access to space.

The Augustine Commission raises other possibilities -- such as privately-funded spacecraft to compete with NASA. And it talks of fuel stations in orbit for rockets to rendezvous with, so they can tank up on their way to deep space.

All this sounds very ambitious, but it leaves the nagging question of how to pay for such a retrenchment. The Bush plan called on NASA to make its transition without spending more money than it already did.

Before the recession, NASA's budget was typically about half of one percent of the federal budget. The proposed budget for 2010 is $18.7 billion.

Michael Griffin, the NASA chief for the closing years of the Bush administration, said it costs more than $4 billion a year to keep the space shuttle program going -- whether the shuttles fly or not.

Paying for workers in Florida and Houston, maintaining the three remaining space shuttles and their launch complex -- all that is expensive.

Constellation could not go full speed ahead until NASA was relieved of the expense of the shuttle program, Griffin said.

Save the Space Shuttle

What's more, the current Constellation plan calls for it to use Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center -- the one built in the 1960s for the Apollo moon launches, and used by the shuttles since 1981. Why? To save money.

If the shuttles keep flying, there will be a traffic jam in Florida.

The Augustine Commission goes on to lay out different options for NASA's future:

Focus on the moon, with exploration of its surface.

Use the moon for sorties into deeper space.

Flyby missions to Mars, without landing.

Skip the lunar effort, and go straight for a Mars landing.

The commission's recommendations are not binding, but they matter to a program that Obama said back in March suffered from "a sense of drift."

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