Recession Forcing U.S. to Reconsider Retiring Space Shuttle Fleet
The economic downturn is causing U.S. lawmakers to pressure the Obama administration to change its plans to end the space shuttle program next year, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
With unemployment reaching record levels, legislators from states such as Alabama, Florida, and Texas, where the space program employs thousands of advanced engineers, are speaking out on the need to keep the shuttle fleet flying into the near future.
NASA's current plans call for mothballing the three shuttles comprising the Space Transportation System after the last major component of the International Space Station (ISS) is delivered in 2010. That would free up funds for the space agency to concentrate on its next-generation rocket program known as Project Constellation, expected to need about a decade to perfect.
While Constellation is creating new jobs and many involved in the shuttle program will find employment working on the new project, prominent voices in the U.S. Congress are unhappy that the transition looms in the midst of an economic slump in which engineers are already facing tough times.
Grounding the shuttle fleet will give thousands of more engineers little to do for years while the rockets and crew vehicles of Constellation are being developed, those representing the most affected states worry. Indeed, the current plan calls for missions to the ISS to be assumed by the Russian space program, which would see additional flights assigned to that nation's workhorse Soyuz spacecraft.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a former astronaut, has included language in the federal budget bill now under debate to provide an extra US $2.5 billion to keep the shuttles flying through 2011, even though NASA opposes the move.
Complicating matters, the Obama administration has yet to settle on a nominee for a leader for NASA to replace longtime chief Michael Griffin, who retired in January to give the new president a free hand to pick someone of his own liking.
In a report released yesterday by the congressionally created Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, the group strongly endorsed NASA's 2010 retirement deadline, concluding that planning to fly longer "not only would increase the risk to crews, but also could jeopardize" funding for future exploration efforts, according to the Journal.
Still, there is considerable room for debate in the month's ahead, with input coming from public officials and industry leaders alike, before the last chapter of the storied history of the space shuttle program is written.
Stay tuned for much, much more to come.