Hearing to consider space shuttle's future

Senate panel chairman to press NASA for answer on funding of aging fleet

May 03, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - Sen. Sam Brownback has a simple question: Should NASA keep spending $4 billion a year on an aging shuttle fleet when its long-term goal is to go back to the moon and beyond?

On Wednesday, the Kansas Republican will hold a hearing to press the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for an answer.

"I have a car that has 150,000 miles on it, and my wife [is] always questioning, `Why are we putting a new transmission in there? Why are you doing that? You're just fixing something that's going to keep breaking,'" Brownback said last week. "This is a very similar analogy here. This is 20- to 30-year-old technology, and it continues to experience problems. One more accident and we don't fly it, period."

When President Bush proposed a new focus for the space program in January, he urged NASA to aim beyond low Earth orbit and shoot for the kind of destinations that stirred Americans more than three decades ago. But Bush also vowed to finish the international space station, which will require more than two dozen shuttle flights.

But the remaining three shuttles won't return to orbit until NASA has finished outfitting them with a slew of safety improvements recommended after the Columbia disaster last year. Right now, the agency is aiming for a launch next spring - but that timetable remains precarious.

NASA's long-term strategy depends on retiring the shuttle fleet near the end of the decade, after the station is completed. That would free up the money from the shuttle program for a new spacecraft, called the crew exploration vehicle, and allow plans for broader exploration of the solar system to hit full stride.

Brownback, chairman of the subcommittee on science, technology and space, wants to know whether there is a better way.

"I think we should truncate the exit strategy to get out of the shuttle and see what we can do with these other things to keep the [space station] operating," he said. "But let's look at other opportunities."

Brownback said he wants to hear what other countries, or the private sector, could do to help NASA finish and support the station without the shuttle. With the fleet grounded since the Columbia accident, the station is dependent on the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft for ferrying crews and basic supplies back and forth.

For NASA, the answer to Brownback's question is relatively easy: The shuttle is the best - and really only - spacecraft for finishing construction of the station.

Michael Kostelnik, who oversees the shuttle and space-station programs at NASA headquarters in Washington, said the existing plan for the station would have to be revamped drastically to phase out the shuttle sooner.

"If you're going to build [the] station as we understand it," Kostelnik said, "it would be hard to do it quicker."

NASA has 15 international partners in the station project, including the Russians. In fact, several components for the station, some funded by those partners, are at Kennedy Space Center, waiting for a shuttle to take them to the station.

John Logsdon, head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the question cannot be addressed in the abstract. Logsdon, who served as a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which recommended most of the shuttle fixes NASA is working on - and suggested the shuttle should be retired sooner rather than later - said the debate is worth having.

"I think first, we have to explore other options for finishing and maintaining the station - and if there are any, then we can begin to think seriously about retiring the shuttle," he said.

Kostelnik said there had not been an extensive discussion within NASA about the point where the return-to-flight effort might be deemed too expensive or too time-consuming. He said the shuttle program is on track for a spring 2005 launch. The further away the launch date, the more difficult it's going to be to maintain a healthy space station, he said. But the focus has to be on getting all the shuttle fixes done.

"Really, I don't think we have any choice, as long as we can keep the station crewed and keep that activity going," Kostelnik said.

NASA officials have maintained that their plan for future exploration missions - Bush proposed sending astronauts back to the moon as early as 2015 - would not substantially benefit from an early infusion of the money now spent on the shuttle.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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