Plan to replace shuttle met with skepticism

WASHINGTON, D.C. – NASA budget cuts and subsequent delays in Shuttle safety upgrades and infrastructure will put the safety of the Space Shuttle in serious jeopardy, a former chairman of an advisory group warned the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics today.

“In all of the years of my involvement, I have never been as concerned for Space Shuttle safety as I am right now,” said Richard Blomberg, former chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. Blomberg pointed to the deferral or elimination of planned safety upgrades, a diminished workforce as a result of government and contractor hiring freezes, and an aging infrastructure, as reasons for the findings of the advisory panel.

In response, Frederick Gregory, Associate Administrator of Space Flight at NASA, reaffirmed safety as NASA’s top priority. Gregory asserted that NASA does have the resources to maintain Shuttle safety and added, “we will never launch the Shuttle if we do not feel it is safe.”

“The Shuttle was designed over 30 years ago and many of its systems are based on obsolete technology,” said Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). “To be fair, the Shuttle program budget has decreased by more than forty-percent over the last ten years, while maintaining 100 percent mission success. America needs a commitment from NASA and our aerospace community to come up with responsible approaches for affordable and reliable access to space.”

NASA’s current investments in Shuttle operations and safety upgrades are based on the premise that NASA will begin phasing out the Shuttle in 2012 when it plans to replace the Shuttle with a new reusable launch vehicle (RLV). NASA expects to decide in 2006 whether to begin development of this new RLV.

However, Gerard Elverum, a NASA advisor on space transportation and RLVs, expressed skepticism over this open-ended approach. “The only hope of achieving such a goal would be if the system and operating requirements controlling the design of a new RLV were conservatively matched to a possible viable funding profile,” Elverum said. Moreover, both advisory panels expressed doubt that SLI could meet the 2012 timeframe, raising further questions regarding NASA’s strategy for cutting Shuttle safety upgrades.

Witness testimony and an archived video web cast of the hearing can be found at the Science Committee web site,