Aug 28 2008

State senators backing request to extend space shuttle program

Huntsville Times

By SHELBY G. SPIRES

Russia's hostility against Georgia is cited as cause

Alabama's senators support a call to extend the space shuttle program by one year that was launched this week by a trio of U.S. senators - including Republican presidential-hopeful John McCain - but only if the money is not taken from other vital Marshall Space Flight Center programs, they said.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and David Vitter, R-La., along with McCain, R-Ariz., sent a letter to the White House dated Monday asking for at least a one-year extension to the space shuttle program to keep the United States from hitching rides on Russian Soyuz capsules. The letter cited the recent Russian aggression against Georgia as a threat to the NASA-Russian Space Agency partnership.

The shuttle is slated to retire in late 2010. Marshall Space Flight Center is working to develop a replacement rocket - the Ares I - to loft crew members to the International Space Station, but delays in the Ares program have created a five-year gap that could leave NASA reliant on Russia for a ticket to the $100 billion floating lab.

The letter noted there may not be enough money in NASA's $17.6 billion 2009 requested budget to cover a shuttle extension. Extending shuttle operations for a year could cost more than $2 billion and run up to $5 billion beyond 2011, NASA managers told Congress earlier this year.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said there could be no additional shuttle flights if additional NASA money didn't follow the request and without a budget boost Marshall's Ares program would suffer.

"If the Bush administration intends to propose additional shuttle flights, then we must have a corresponding increase in the NASA budget request," Shelby said. "Otherwise, I would oppose any such effort that will undercut our research and development of America's next generation of space flight."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, agreed with the letter's intent and called for a cessation of Russian hostility to its neighbors. He said he fears the 15-year-old joint U.S.-Russian space station agreement could end if relations continued to slide, he said.

"If Russia continues to act irresponsibly, our partnership in space will have to end. If that occurs, we will need to maintain our own launch capability in the future," Sessions said.

The letter called for support of the Ares program, the Orion crew capsule and for support for commercial rockets, such as the Delta IV manufactured by the United Launch Alliance in Decatur.

However, the senators wrote, "neither of these efforts offers a clear near-term solution to ensure that U.S. astronauts and scientists are able to make use of the U.S. segment of the (space station) - which has been designated a National Laboratory."

Shuttle extension is only one element of a complex issue, said Bob Jacobs, NASA spokesman in Washington, D.C., because a shuttle extension doesn't stop the expiration of a Congressional waiver that allows NASA to do business with Russia.

American firms and federal agencies are banned by a 2000 law from doing business with countries that trade arms technology with Iran, and U.S. intelligence reports claim Russia has provided missile and other high-tech weapons to Iran.

"Unless NASA purchases seats on Soyuz, then the Russians more than likely won't produce Soyuz," Jacobs said. "Without the Soyuz, then we don't have extended rescue capability. We would only have rescue capability when the shuttle is docked."

Shuttle docking is limited by power and other supplies for two weeks. Soyuz capsules can stay on the station for up to six months.

Former NASA engineer Don Nelson, who has worked extensively with Marshall engineers in the past, said the pressing issue was to keep intact the external fuel tank manufacturing capability at Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.

"When that tool work is taken out, then you can't make anymore shuttles and that's the end of the program," said Nelson, a 36 year space agency veteran, who retired from Johnson Space Center near Houston in 1999. "My fear is that, come 2011, we are going to have no shuttle and either depend totally on the Russians or abandon the space station."

Across the nation, some 21,000 people work on the shuttle program, with a high percentage in Texas and Florida. About 500 civil servants work at Marshall on the shuttle program, and it is estimated that another 1,000 contractors perform shuttle-related work on Redstone and in Huntsville.

Many of those jobs are in transition to the Ares program, NASA managers have said, with almost 2,000 people in North Alabama working on the Ares I replacement rocket program.

The first segment of the space station - the Russian Zarya module - was launched in November 1998. Since October 2000, the station has been continuously crewed. Segments of the Japanese Kibo lab make up the latest piece of the station and were delivered in May.