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Space Shuttle Discovery

Space Shuttle Retirement Dilemma Ruffles NASA

September 11, 2008 04:39 PM
by Josh Katz
The possibility that only Russians will man the International Space Station after U.S. shuttles retire in 2010 is causing tension between the NASA chief and the White House.

The Shuttle Quandary

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NASA’s fleet of space shuttles is slated for retirement in 2010, thanks in part to recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The Discovery shuttles began operations in 1984 and have participated in 34 missions, according to The Staunton News Leader. Project Constellation will introduce the new Ares launch vehicle and Orion crew capsule.

However, the new Ares/Orion vehicle won’t be operational until 2015 at the earliest. Therefore, NASA is confronting the possibility that there will only be Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station for that period of time.

NASA was planning to fill the gap by purchasing Russian Soyuz capsules to move crews to and from the space station after 2011. But with three years’ notice required, the deal must be approved soon, and NASA chief Michael Griffin does not believe Congress will approve the purchase of the Russian capsules in time.

The holdup is a trade sanction called the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, which Congress issued in 2005 after Russia allegedly passed nuclear information to Iran. According to Discovery News, the sanction bars the U.S. from buying certain technology from Russia. To buy the Soyuz capsules, Congress would need to pass an exemption. And the situation became more complicated when U.S. relations with Russia began falling to Cold War levels as a result of the conflict in Georgia.

An August 15 e-mail from Griffin recently leaked to the press in which he expresses frustration over the policies of the Bush administration and worry that the space program is facing a major predicament. In the e-mail, Griffin says that the possibility that Congress will permit the Russian capsule deal is “DoA” (dead on arrival), New Scientist writes.

Griffin also wrote in the e-mail, “The rational approach didn’t happen, primarily because for OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) and OMB (Office of Management and Budget), retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program management decision,” according to InformationWeek. Furthermore, he wrote that the White House does “not want the [International Space Station] to be sustained, and have done everything possible to ensure that it would not be.”

This past Sunday, however, Griffin retreated from his comments in the e-mail, expressed his support for the policies of the Bush administration, and said that the government’s plan “is to retire the shuttle in 2010 and purchase crew transport from Russia until Ares and Orion are available,” InformationWeek reports. “The leaked internal email fails to provide the contextual framework for my remarks, and my support for the administration’s policies,” he said.

Griffin’s beliefs appear even more contradictory, according to the magazine Nature, because of a September 2 interview with Space.com. “As I think you know, presidential policy has been that shuttle will be retired at the end of 2010 and that certainly is a position I have agreed with and I’ve made no bones about it,” Griffin told Space.com. “We need to get the shuttle behind us so we can move forward with new systems.”

Opinion & Analysis: The best course of action

In the New Scientist’s Space Blog, computer programmer and spacecraft engineer Henry Spencer argues that delaying the shuttle’s retirement is problematic. Besides the fact that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that the shuttle should either retire in 2010 or be recertified, “The obvious snag is that such overhauls would be big, expensive, time-consuming projects,” he says. Spencer claims that the best solution is to “stretch” the 2010 deadline by flying “only about twice a year,” sidestepping the need for recertification.

The News Leader also agrees that the United States should hold off on the retirement of the shuttles, a policy recommended by Ariz. Sen. John McCain. The paper stresses that the country cannot rely on Russia to transport American astronauts and “as Florida Senator Bill Nelson points out, extending the shuttle program will not only shore up our dominance in space but will also save the jobs of some of our most talented space workers.”

The Orlando Sentinel, however, believes that it is in the best interests of the United States for Congress to agree to waiver the sanctions against Russia, because the repercussions of not doing so would be worse for the United States than for Russia. “Lawmakers have little choice but to hold their noses and grant the waiver,” the paper says. “Lawmakers also need to find the $2 billion, called for in House-passed legislation, that could speed up the development of NASA’s next vehicle by a couple of years.”

On the Web site of the Russian News & Information Agency RIA Novosti, political commentator Andrei Kislyakov argues that the United States is losing interest in the International Space Station anyway. “The Moon and Mars dominate NASA's politics and economy,” according to Kislyakov. “The station’s future, therefore, calls for no special consideration. A year or so ago, according to NASA officials, the agency negotiated with some public and private bodies the use of the American segment of the station for micro-gravity research, starting in 2010.”

Related Topic: NASA’s birthday

Reference: Astronomy

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