NASA budget supports up to 17 space shuttle flights
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 6, 2006
By sharply reducing the growth of space science and other NASA programs over the next five years, NASA managers hope to erase a projected multi-billion dollar shortfall in the shuttle budget, permitting up to 17 missions between now and the program's retirement in 2010, including a possible flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Only two flights are expected this year, one in May and the other late this summer, as NASA struggles to complete its recovery from the Columbia disaster and finish a major overhaul of the shuttle Endeavour.
Unveiling NASA's fiscal 2007 budget, Administrator Mike Griffin said today the Bush administration is requesting $16.8 billion for the civilian space agency, a 3.2 percent increase over fiscal 2006.
The 2007 budget includes $5.3 billion for space science; $4 billion for development of a new manned spacecraft and other technologies for the president's moon-Mars exploration initiative; and $6.2 billion for the space shuttle and international space station projects.
"Leadership means setting priorities," Griffin said today. "And leadership means making difficult decisions based on the best facts and analysis available. And one plain fact is NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like us to do. We must set priorities and we must adjust our spending to match those priorities."
To make up the projected shuttle shortfall, "we took a couple of billion out of science and a billion and a half out of the exploration line and made up what we needed to make up," Griffin said.
During a news conference last month, Griffin said NASA's space science budget would not be cut to fund the shuttle, the space station or the Bush administration's moon-Mars initiative. But growth would be reduced, he said.
"We are not whacking the space science program to pay for human exploration," he said in response to a question from CBS News. "This is not the 'Sopranos,' we don't whack people or programs here. We have, of course, in this nation, I do not need to be the one to tell you this, this is a difficult budgetary environment. NASA is not looking forward to any gifts of robust growth from either the administration or the Congress. We expect to keep approximately the funding we have, which will essentially be a very low growth funding profile and therefore, all of the components, each separate component of what NASA does can expect to have, at best, only modest growth.
"The difference between cuts and modest growth, I guess, needs to be explained to people. I think we're doing well and within NASA, the space science program is doing well and will continue to do well."
Today, a reporter asked the administrator, "last September you said that not one thin dime would be taken away from the science programs for human spaceflight and exploration. Is what you just said, that that's exactly what has been done, not just one thin dime but two billion dollars taken away from space science to complete the ISS?"
"Yep, that's right," Griffin said with his usual candor. "I wish we hadn't had to do it, I didn't want to, but that's what we needed to do."
The Planetary Society, an international space interest group, said today the president's 2007 budget request for NASA "shortchanges space science in order to fund 17 projected space shuttle flights."
"Despite recent spectacular results from NASA's science programs, this budget puts the brakes on their growth within the agency," the society said in a statement. "It seriously damages the hugely productive and successful robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond."
Society president Wesley Huntress, a former associate administrator for space science at NASA headquarters, said the agency is "essentially transferring funds from a popular and highly productive program into one scheduled for termination."
In January 2004, President Bush announced a new direction for NASA, telling the agency to complete the international space station and retire the shuttle by 2010; to develop a new crew exploration vehicle to replace the shuttle; and to use that spacecraft and other technologies to return astronauts to the moon by the end of the next decade. Returning to the moon is seen as a first step toward eventually launching humans to Mars.
NASA has been struggling to complete post-Columbia safety upgrades, which have cost far more than initially envisioned, and to come up with a space station assembly sequence that can meet long-standing international commitments and research objectives by the 2010 deadline. Twenty eight flights were required to meet the program's original objectives, but that number was whittled down to 18 last year and now, to 16, assuming two resupply flights are ultimately cancelled and replaced by commercial missions. NASA's 2007 budget includes money, however, to continue preparations for an additional flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
In the near term, NASA still hopes to launch the shuttle Discovery on the second post-Columbia mission, STS-121, during a window that opens May 3 and closes May 22. Because of hardware processing issues, NASA insiders say mid to late May is the current best guess as to an eventual launch date.
NASA's launch windows are limited because of a post-Columbia directive to launch the first few shuttle flights in daylight and to make sure external fuel tank separation occurs in daylight half a world away. NASA engineers want to make sure the tank's foam insulation doesn't break away during launch and good lighting is required for detailed ground- and space-based photo documentation.
Those requirements, along with the nature of the international space station's orbit, limit NASA to relatively infrequent windows. The next three are as follows:
Late last year, NASA managers decided to simply eliminate the ramp after detailed computer analysis indicated the pressurization lines and cable tray are tough enough to withstand the expected buffeting as the shuttle breaks through the region of maximum aerodynamic pressure shortly after launch.
On the assumption upcoming wind tunnel tests in March will verify the earlier analyses, external tank No. 119, sans PAL ramp, will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center from Lockheed Martin's Michoud (La.) Assembly Facility around March 3.
External tank No. 118, slated for use by the shuttle Atlantis for the third post-Columbia mission, STS-115, is not scheduled to arrive in Florida until late May. Atlantis and ET-118 will be on call for rescue duty in the event of a major problem during Discovery's upcoming flight that might force the crew to seek "safe haven" aboard the international space station.
Given ET-118's late arrival in Florida, a stranded crew would have a fairly long wait for a ride home. Assuming a mid-May launch for Discovery on mission STS-121, Atlantis would not be ready for rescue duty until around Aug. 4.
But space station managers say the orbital lab complex will have enough oxygen and other supplies on board by the time of Discovery's launch to support a combined crew for almost six months.
If Discovery does, in fact, get off in May and no major problems develop, NASA will process Atlantis for a launching in late August on mission STS-115.
At that point, if all goes well, NASA almost certainly will relax the daylight launch requirement. Even so, agency officials say, a third flight appears extremely unlikely this year because the shuttle Endeavour, currently undergoing a major overhaul, is not expected to be ready to fly mission STS-116 until early 2007.