Early Retirement for Space Shuttles Unlikely, Lawmakers Say
CAPE CANAVERAL - The White House this month asked NASA how much money could be saved by shutting down the shuttle program immediately instead of waiting until 2010 as planned.
A group of Republican lawmakers led by Mike Pence of Indiana last week said the $104 billion to replace the shuttles with a new spaceship and rockets to carry astronauts back to the moon ought to be canceled to help pay to rebuild the hurricane-wrecked Gulf Coast.
Key Congressional leaders said there is little political support for either suggestion.
The two suggestions, however, when coupled with growing political pressure to cut federal spending to offset recovery costs from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is spawning angst at Kennedy Space Center and other NASA facilities.
Brevard County lawmakers said they are confident NASA's budget for the shuttle program will remain intact, as will funding for the initial development of the hardware to send astronauts back to the moon.
U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Indialantic, said he is aware the White House Office of Management and Budget and others are asking questions about shuttle spending, including whether to shut the program down now instead of 2010.
"It's a legitimate question to ask," said Weldon, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees NASA's annual budget. "If you aren't going to fly until the mid or latter part of next year and phase out the shuttle in 2010, why not phase it out now and take the dollars and accelerate the Crew Exploration Vehicle?"
Such a decision is highly unlikely, Weldon said, because the cost and political fallout far outweigh any savings in dollars or time.
An early shutdown of the shuttle program would cost billions, including fees for breaking multi-billion dollar contracts with U.S. companies that work on the shuttle as well as international station partners.
No police change
The Office of Management and Budget declined to comment on why it asked for early retirement estimates, sending questioners to NASA. Bob Jacobs, a spokesman at NASA's headquarters in Washington, said there has been no change in national policy regarding the shuttle retirement.
"The plan is to retire the shuttles in 2010," he said.
Past government studies indicate the cost of terminating the shuttle program early could range from as little as $5 billion to more than $10 billion. Among the costs: fees that would be owed to other countries that invested billions of dollars in space station components the United States had promised to launch aboard the shuttle.
Walking away from the space station, which U.S. taxpayers now have invested at least $60 billion to construct and operate, would be a public relations disaster, Weldon said.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, in recent months, has repeatedly addressed calls to retire the shuttles now.
"Terminating the shuttle program abruptly at this time, while superficially attractive from some points of view, carries with it grave consequences for American preeminence in space, and would be utterly devastating to the workforce we will need to carry out any future human spaceflight program," Griffin said in a speech last month.
By contrast, an orderly transition from the shuttle to the next program will help NASA retain workers and facilities needed for the moon missions, Griffin said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, said it is inconceivable the White House or the Office of Management and Budget would order an early termination to the shuttle program.
"I wouldn't let 'em," said Nelson, who flew on a shuttle mission in 1986 when he was a congressman representing Brevard County. "There would be plenty of other senators up here who wouldn't let them."
Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, said he and other lawmakers representing communities where NASA is a major employer, have used a variety of arguments to persuade skeptical colleagues to support the exploration plan.
"The politics of funding this is difficult," Feeney said Thursday during an appearance in Washington before the Commission on the Future of Space & Aeronautics in Florida.
Costs in question
After President Bush announced last year that NASA would pursue programs to explore the moon and eventually Mars, fiscal conservatives including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned the cost of the plan.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay all pitched in publicly and behind the scenes to defend the moon plan and its anticipated costs, Feeney said.
"We had to back off the fiscal conservatives," Feeney said. "They were getting entrenched."
Feeney said he and other pro-space lawmakers spend a good deal of time trying to convert a large group of colleagues who he classified as "agnostic" because they don't care what happens to NASA.
So far this year, the pressure from key space supporters in the White House and Congress appears to be working when it comes time to vote.
A NASA authorization bill, including language supportive of the moon plans, sailed through the House by a vote of 383 to 15. The full Senate is expected to vote on its version of the same bill within a week.
Similarly, the annual appropriations bills that provide funding for NASA, cleared the House and Senate this year with no major revisions or challenges to the space program.
Both chambers approved approximately $16.4 billion for NASA in 2006, slightly more than in 2005. Both chambers must reconcile minor differences before voting on a final version that will be sent to President Bush for his signature.
Day of reckoning
Despite the support, some lawmakers fear NASA and Congress still face a painful day of reckoning as they attempt to keep the shuttles flying through 2010 while building a new Crew Exploration Vehicle and launchers to go to the moon.
Current NASA budget projection shows yearly shuttle costs dropping from $4.5 billion in 2005 to $2.4 billion in 2010, the year the orbiters retire. The space agency has not revealed how it plans to cut the shuttle budget in half while mounting to four or five flights a year as the current manifest shows.
"The clash comes when you get to the point you have launched all the components to the space station that you can and you get to 2010," Nelson said. "At that point I don't think there is any choice but to increase the budget to continue launching the shuttle."
At last week's news conference to unveil the new spaceship and rockets, Griffin was asked whether the agency would need more money than currently budgeted to fly the shuttles through 2010. If the shuttle budget increases, he said, that may lead the agency to push back other projects, though he did not specify which ones.
"We can fly the space shuttle through 2010 with no more money than we have in the five-year budget plan," he said. "The question is what effect that will have on other dates within the program and we don't know that yet."
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