Apr 02 2009

No to shuttle extension if move would delay Ares

By SHELBY G. SPIRES

Shelby says money can't come at expense of next program

A Florida lawmaker's plan to extend the life of the space shuttle could become a double-edged sword, Alabama lawmakers and space experts say.

An extension could sap money from new Marshall Space Flight Center-developed rockets and keep NASA out of manned spaceflight for years if space agency budgets are not properly funded.

A proposed $2.5 billion boost to NASA's budget to keep the space shuttle flying one year past its September 2010 retirement date is working its way through Congress this week. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., requested the additional money.

Since 2005, NASA has been working on the transition from the three-decade-old shuttle program to newer Marshall-developed Ares I and Ares V rockets that would support the International Space Station.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which holds sway over the NASA budget, has said keeping Ares development fully funded and on track is crucial, and the shuttle program retirement should be reviewed carefully so it does not delay the new rockets.

"I am supportive of the shuttle program and hope that it will be able to safely finish its mission by the end of 2010," Shelby told The Times Wednesday. "However, if funds are necessary for delaying the retirement of the shuttle program, those dollars cannot come at the expense of the nation's next manned space program," the Ares I and Ares V being developed at Marshall.

NASA faces an almost five-year gap, 2010 to 2015, between the last flight of the shuttle and the first crew lofted into orbit by the Ares I.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith, D-Huntsville, agreed with Shelby and said he wouldn't support an extension of the shuttle program if it would delay the Ares program.

"I would support continuing shuttle flights past 2010 only if NASA can assure us that it is safe and we can do so without taking funding resources away from the development of the Ares program," Griffith said.

Budget requests for the space shuttle this year officially stand at around $3 billion. Money was added to the NASA budget by Congress and the Obama White House earlier this year as part of stimulus and increased budget packages. Most of that money went to Earth science, other research programs and to Ares rocket development.

Nelson, chairman of the U.S. Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences Subcommittee, faces thousands of lost space jobs in Florida when the shuttle retires. NASA and aerospace contractors estimate about 18,000 jobs are tied to the shuttle program in Florida, most near Kennedy Space Center.

More than 1,000 NASA and aerospace contractor jobs in North Alabama are now tied to the space shuttle program. NASA has been moving most of the shuttle workers to the Ares rocket programs.

Flying the shuttle while continuing the Ares development is likely to create budget conflicts with the space agency's future rounds of funding, said Keith Cowing, who runs the space agency watchdog Web site NASAWatch.com.

"There's two schools of thought on extending the space shuttle," he said. "One is that is would be a way to close the looming gap, but there are people who fly the shuttle and who work on the program that feel that it is time to retire the shuttle because it is not safe to fly.

"If there's money across the budget years to fly shuttle and develop Ares, then it is possible," said Cowing. "If the money goes away, then it's impossible."