Griffin Tells Senate That Shuttle Must Be Replaced

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NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told members of a Senate subcommittee May 12 he is willing to delay research activity aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — and launch some ISS hardware on something other than space shuttles — if that’s what it takes to replace the shuttle fleet with a new vehicle by 2010.

Appearing before the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee Griffin said the international space station could be completed with 18 space shuttle flights or fewer. He also said he intends to field the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) as close to 2010 as possible and that he would use space station research funds if necessary to help pay for the accelerated development effort.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who also chairs the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, told Griffin during the hearing, as she has before, that she fully supports his drive to avoid a gap between retiring the shuttle in 2010 and flying the CEV for the first time. But she also warned him that she would take a dim view of any plan that would diminish the space station’s research capabilities.

“I don’t want to ever have any indication that the actual science that is to be done on the space station is in any way a lesser priority,” Hutchison said.

Griffin made no promises that the station’s research budget would be off limits. “Space station, once built, will be an excellent platform for a number of different kinds of engineering, physical science and biological research. And will do that. It will be flying for many, many years,” Griffin said. “But if in order to produce the next vehicle which will allow us to ferry the astronauts back and forth to the international space station I need to delay some of that research, then that is what I will have to do.”

In fact, Griffin has already started to cut space station research and a number of other programs to help pay for returning the shuttle to flight and other pressing priorities without reducing the amount of money NASA has this year for the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Those other pressing priorities total more than $2 billion and include preparing for a possible shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope and finally releasing $400 million in congressionally-directed funding lawmakers, including Hutchison, added to NASA’s 2005 budget of $16.2 billion to pay for pet projects.

Additionally, numerous spacecraft projects in development, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and New Horizons Pluto probe, have encountered snags and setbacks requiring more than $500 million in additional funding this year to overcome.

Before Griffin was sworn in as NASA chief April 14, an effort was already underway to refocus the space station’s research agenda away from basic research and towards projects with clear application to the agency’s new space exploration goals. That effort has since been completed, though not publicly released, resulting in more than $130 million in cuts this year to fundamental biological and physical research projects that have been deemed lower priorities. At the same time, NASA has added about $45 million for new space exploration-oriented research activities.

The space station research cuts were detailed in an updated 2005 operating plan NASA sent to Congress the day before the budget hearing. The plan, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, details changes both big and small that NASA says are necessary to make it through the fiscal year.

The new operating plan would cut a number of programs to pay for the shuttle’s return to flight and to cover congressional earmarks. However, it leaves the $420 million budgeted for the Crew Exploration Vehicle this year untouched.

Griffin said he did not yet know whether the $15 billion that NASA previously planned to spend on CEV through 2014 is too much or too little, but he said that accelerating the program would require more of that money in the near term. NASA’s 2006 request includes $753 million for CEV.

Griffin said he would be willing to tap the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate’s technology account to help cover CEV costs. Exploration Systems has awarded more than $1 billion worth of technology projects since last year. Several of those have already been suspended and Griffin said last week that none of the projects are exempt from the hunt for CEV funds.

“Nothing would give me more pleasure than to sow the seed widely in NASA technology development,” Griffin said at the hearing. “But we must put the development of new technology in second place behind the development of the existing capability on the part of the United States to ferry astronauts and a limited amount of cargo to the space station and to get started down the path to lunar return.”

He also said NASA can free $1 billion for CEV in the near term by picking a prime contractor early next year instead of keeping the competition going until late 2008 as previously planned.

Hutchison, who has many Houston-area constituents who are nervous about retiring the shuttle, asked Griffin if he would consider flying the shuttle beyond 2010 in order to avoid a gap while waiting for CEV. Hutchison and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced legislation last year that would have required NASA to keep the shuttle flying until the CEV is ready.

Griffin was unequivocal in his response. “Senator, I cannot support that position,” he said. “The shuttle is an inherently flawed system. We all know that human perfection is unattainable. Sooner or later there will be another shuttle accident. I want to retire it before that can occur.”

When Hutchison and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), the appropriations committee’s ranking Democrat, expressed concern about NASA’s ability to fly enough shuttle missions by 2010 to finish the space station, Griffin did not try to coddle them. “It is an extremely robust schedule and we are not sure we can accomplish it,” Griffin said. “We are looking at alternative assembly sequences for the station that we would use in case we were not able to get all 18 assembly flights accomplished with the shuttle.”

In addition to the 18 assembly flights, NASA’s shuttle manifest currently includes five logistics flights and five utilization flights.

Griffin said the five utilization flights by shuttles could be eliminated if NASA postpones some research projects until after the station is finished and if expendable rockets equipped with the European or Japanese cargo modules can be used to accomplish some of the planned shuttle logistics flights to the station. The purpose of the utilization flights is to deliver experiments to the station. Logistics flights involve the delivery of fuel, food, water and other supplies to the station.

If NASA is still not done building the station by the end of 2010, Griffin said NASA would still retire the shuttle and use other means, most likely expendable rockets, to finish delivering and installing the remaining hardware.

Griffin promised lawmakers that more details would be presented in mid-July once a small study group chartered late last month reports back to him with recommendations for accelerating the development of the CEV, the rocket needed to launch it, and the overall approach, or architecture, NASA should pursue to put humans on the Moon by 2020.

Although Griffin at times clashed with the senators by not telling them what they wanted to hear, he was praised for his candor by Hutchison, Mikulski and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who chaired the hearing.

“We’re off to a good start,” Mikulski summed up, “even if some of the things you are telling us are giving us heartburn,” she said.

Griffin broke no new ground on NASA’s plans for Hubble during the hearing, but afterwards told reporters that sending a shuttle to the telescope would eliminate the need to conduct a separate robotic mission to de-orbit Hubble at the end of its life. “If we are able to do a shuttle servicing mission to Hubble then we will attach at that time whatever de-orbit hardware we need to do,” he said.

Griffin also said May 12 that Project Prometheus, a nuclear power and propulsion effort initiated by his predecessor in 2002, will be refocused on the development of surface nuclear power systems needed for human lunar expeditions and nuclear thermal propulsion for Mars expeditions. Nuclear electric propulsion, the original focus of Prometheus, is now considered the lowest priority.

NASA’s 2005 operating plan eliminates $170 million of Prometheus’ $430 million budget.