WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said he was looking ahead rather than responding to political pressure when he asked in late August for an internal assessment of what it would take to keep the space shuttle flying as much as five years beyond its planned 2010 retirement.

Griffin said he remains committed to retiring the shuttle on schedule and putting the roughly $3 billion a year now spent on that program into finishing the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher, both of which are under development.

“We need to get the shuttle behind us so we can move forward with the new systems that will take us back to the Moon and later on be the building blocks for going to Mars,” Griffin told Space News in an interview Sept. 2. “But what I think is important is not the question. The question that matters is if NASA gets directed to continue flying the shuttle, how do we do it in the most prudent and least damaging manner and what will the impacts be? We need to have those answers in some amount of detail because they might influence such a decision.”

U.S. politicians are taking increasing notice of the fact that NASA will be completely reliant on Russia for at least several years after the shuttle is retired for transporting U.S. astronauts to and from the international space station (ISS). Further complicating matters, a waiver NASA needs Congress to pass so it can continue to buy Russian Soyuz crew-transport vehicles beyond 2011 has stalled and stands little chance of passage this year.

Three U.S. senators, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona, wrote President George W. Bush Aug. 25 to tell him that Russia’s recent military incursion into neighboring Georgia made it unlikely that Congress would move any time soon to amend the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA). The amendment is necessary to permit NASA to negotiate for the twice-a-year Soyuz flights it needs between 2012 and 2015 to keep U.S. astronauts on the space station.

McCain, joined by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and David Vitter (R-La.), asked Bush to direct NASA not to take any action that would prevent the agency from continuing to fly the space shuttle for several years beyond 2010 should it be necessary.

Three days later, a NASA official in charge of the shuttle launch manifest sent a memo to more than a dozen colleagues to kick off a “shuttle extension assessment” requested by Griffin to find out what it would take to keep the shuttle flying to 2015.

“We want to focus on helping bridge the gap of U.S. vehicles traveling to the ISS as efficiently as possible,” John Coggeshall, the manifest and schedules manager at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, wrote in an Aug. 27 memo, a copy of which was leaked to the reporters.

Griffin said during the Sept. 2 interview that he requested the study after Russia invaded Georgia but before he had any knowledge the senators’ Aug. 25 letter to Bush.

“Whether you connect it to INKSNA or whether you connect it to an upcoming election and transition, inevitably questions are going to be asked about what it would take to continue to supply ISS logistics via the space shuttle,” Griffin said. “I thought it prudent to begin planning now because there are a lot of very difficult questions to answer if somebody does want to continue to fly the shuttle.”

Griffin said the answers NASA comes back with might not be all that palatable: “It is almost impossible that we would produce an answer that would be likeable – This is not a pretty picture.”

Flying the shuttle may be more risky than previously thought, according to Griffin, who told Congress in April that the odds of losing a shuttle during the 10 remaining missions were 1 in 12. A more recent assessment, he said, shows that the odds are closer to 1 in 8.

Regardless of whether the shuttle flies past 2010, space station crews would have no means of escape in an emergency without Soyuz since the three-seat vehicles, in addition to providing crew rotation, remain docked to the facility to serve as a lifeboat.

“If one insists on having crew rescue capability, then until we have Orion or until a commercial vehicle emerges and is qualified to do the job, then the Russians are the only game in town for crew rescue,” Griffin said.

NASA could limit crew stays to the roughly two weeks a space shuttle is capable of remaining docked to the station before having to come home. But Griffin said that option would provide perhaps “50 days [on orbit] a year for a very high price.”

Griffin said he expects the study to take “a few months” to complete, adding that he does not know whether the information will be made public.

Word that NASA was examining the implications of keeping the shuttle flying past 2010 has rekindled debate over whether shuttle should be retired at all. Wayne Hale, the NASA space shuttle program manager promoted in February to a strategic management position, touched on that debate in a Sept. 4 posting on his official NASA blog.

“If I had a magic wand I would wish to keep flying an upgraded, safer shuttle at the same time we build the moon rocket, and hand out multiple incentives to private industry to develop a robust, economical, and efficient space transportation system,” Hale wrote. “But I don’t have that magic wand and don’t know anybody that does.”

Constellation Milestones

NASA’s shuttle extension study comes as the agency’s Constellation program – which encompasses the hardware that will replace the shuttle and eventually transport astronauts to the Moon and other destinations – continues to delay some of its internal program milestones for Orion and Ares.

Griffin said shifting internal dates to the right does not call into question NASA’s plans to deploy Orion and Ares by March 2015. Rather, he said, it is a reflection that the more aggressive September 2013 deployment date NASA has been carrying for a couple years now is no longer achievable, even if Congress were to shower the program with money.

“We maintained for several years – on purpose and at my direction – internal milestones for Constellation that were as early as could credibly be done,” he said. “I maintained the earliest milestones that we could, precisely because … there was so much consternation about the length of the gap between shuttle retirement and Ares and Orion deployment and many questions about how much money would be required to accelerate development of the systems by so many months. We had questions like that at every hearing and so in order to have the program appropriately positioned should the Congress have decided to provided extra money to Constellation, I didn’t want the issue to be moot.”

Griffin testified numerous times in recent years that NASA could move up deployment of Orion and Ares to as early as September 2013 if it were given roughly $100 million for every month of acceleration, or about $2 billion over the next couple years.

But too much time, he said during the interview, has since passed for NASA to be able accelerate the program. As a result, Griffin said, the Constellation program was able to postpone some fast approaching milestones, including a preliminary design review.

“If the money is not there, then making decisions earlier than one needs to … in order to preserve an artificially earlier date that doesn’t have fiscal credibility to it would be dumb, and I wasn’t going to do that,” he said. “Our internal milestones were the earliest credible ones we could propose. But time has gone by, water has gone over the dam and some of the earlier milestones are just no longer credible and we’ve slipped those out.

“But I still anticipate, absent changes in presidential requests or congressional appropriations – if we continue to get the budgets we are anticipating – our commitment date for Ares and Orion has not changed. It’s still March 2015.”

Congress is widely expected to adjourn at the end of September without completing work on the pile of spending bills that would fund the federal government for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Lawmakers have been saying all year they likely will pass a so-called continuing resolution instead that would keep the government funded roughly at 2008 levels for at least the first six months of the next fiscal year.

Griffin declined to speculate on how a continuing resolution would impact NASA’s plans, saying a lot would depend on the details. However, he pointed out that when Congress passed a nearly yearlong continuing resolution at the start of 2007, NASA was denied a $575 million increase it had been counting on. Human spaceflight programs, including Constellation, felt a disproportionate share of that pain, he noted, since the continuing resolution stipulated increases for aeronautics and science without providing the extra money.

See www.spacenews.com for a complete transcript of the interview with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. |