Shuttle called vital to finish space station

Kansas senator presses NASA on what craft other nations can provide

May 06, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - Scrapping the space shuttle before the International Space Station is completed would be expensive and could delay the station's construction by years, NASA officials said yesterday.

But U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback repeatedly pressed representatives of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration about alternatives to the shuttle.

William Readdy, NASA's top spaceflight official, said the shuttle is the only vehicle capable of hauling heavy cargo - such as large pieces of the station - into orbit. Those components were built with the intention that they would be launched on the shuttle, he said, and putting them on another vehicle would require major modifications.

Brownback, a Kansas Republican, asked several times whether NASA has asked the Russian space agency, or any of its other 14 international partners in the station project, if one or several could step in and fill the gap if the shuttle were retired early rather than on its current schedule around 2010.

He questioned whether it's worthwhile to keep pouring money - NASA will spend roughly $4 billion on the shuttle this year - into an aging spacecraft that has suffered two fatal accidents in 18 years.

Readdy replied that the Russians are reliant on the shuttle for ferrying large equipment to the station. NASA estimates that developing a system using an expendable rocket to construct the station would cost more than $700 million and delay station construction by at least four to five years, he said.

"It is not available in Russia. It is not available anywhere else in the world at this point," he said. "It would have to be developed at tremendous expense, and it would also take time."

That makes the shuttle, once it has been outfitted with safety upgrades prompted by last year's Columbia accident, the fastest way to finish the station, Readdy said.

But Brownback did extract a promise from Readdy that NASA will formally ask its partners what they could bring to the table and how much using any other option would cost.

Readdy said NASA is examining the scheduled station flights - more than two dozen are needed to complete the station - to see whether any can be done with another spacecraft.

"We're going to look at the capabilities of all our partners," he said after the hearing.

Brownback said he plans to keep pushing the issue and will hold a hearing in California later this month on the topic.

"I don't think the question's been thoroughly researched and answered about whether or not there are other options to finish ISS, and what the price is to do it other ways," he said after the hearing. "That's the simple question I want answered.

"It's a difficult question to answer, but we really need to answer it before we invest billions more dollars in current technology vs. going in other directions."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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