NASA Considers U.S. Science Suspension Aboard ISS
Still half-built, the International Space Station (ISS) appears in an image captured by astronauts aboard NASA's shuttle Discovery during its July 2006 STS-121 spaceflight.
Credit: NASA.

NASA managers are considering suspending U.S. research aboard the International Space Station (ISS) next year in order to save money for the orbital laboratory's construction, a top program manager said Thursday.

Kirk Shireman, deputy director of NASA's ISS program at Johnson Space Center (JSC), said dropping science research during the 2007 fiscal year is one of several options on the table to make up for a funding shortfall of up to $100 million.

"Right now we're quite a bit in the hole," Shireman told reporters during a Thursday ISS mission briefing at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "We'll look at a bunch of different options for the assembly budget; all those things are under consideration."

NASA is preparing its shuttle Atlantis to launch toward the ISS next month in the first of at least 15 flights to complete construction of the half-built space station by September 2010, when the agency's three-orbiter fleet is retired. Atlantis' STS-115 mission will deliver a 17-ton truss segment and new solar arrays to the $100 billion orbital laboratory.

The future of space station science has come under close scrutiny after NASA officials were forced to divert funds from its science and exploration coffers to make up for an then-expected $4 billion shortfall to complete the ISS and retire the shuttle program.

The National Research Council has issued several reports citing the need for more ISS science and larger station crews in order to bring the orbital laboratory up to its full potential. The potential drop in U.S. science aboard the ISS was first reported by the website NASAwatch.com.

Space station crew sizes were reduced to two-astronaut teams following the 2003 Columbia accident, but returned to their three-person status earlier this month when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Reiter joined Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams during NASA's STS-121 shuttle mission.

"The ISS has severe budgetary limitations next year," Shireman said, adding later that the station program is looking beyond its own resources for assistance. "We're working very hard not only within the program, but with headquarters as well to balance it out."

Shireman said no final decisions have been made, but remained optimistic that the end result would be positive.

"I'm confident that we'll come out with options and a plan to go forward that will be satisfactory for the ISS program and for NASA and the taxpayers as a whole," Shireman said.