NASA Chief: $2 Billion Would Speed Development of Shuttle Replacement
Orion approaches the International Space Station. Photo
Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told a Senate panel Thursday that the United States could field the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares I launcher within three years of the space shuttle's retirement, but meeting that earlier delivery date would require an extra $2 billion over the next couple of years.

"When I came on board it would have been possible, given the necessary budgetary resources, to retire the shuttle at the end of 2010 and deploy Orion in 2012. Time has passed and that is no longer possible. The earliest we could technically to do it today is September of 2013 ? absent crash efforts," Griffin told the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee. The two-hour hearing was devoted to the issues facing the U.S. space program after the shuttle's retirement.

NASA is preparing to retire its three remaining space shuttle orbiters in late 2010 after completing on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station and sending up two dedicated shuttle-loads of critical spare parts. After that, the United States could lack a home-grown means of reaching the space station until Orion and Ares are brought on line in March 2015, the earliest date NASA says it reasonably can guarantee despite budgeting nearly $23 billion for the Constellation effort over the next five years on top of the roughly $5 billion it has spent so far.

Hoping to bridge that gap by buying space transportation services from U.S. firms, Griffin explained that NASA is spending $500 million over the next couple of years to subsidize development of new commercial cargo- and crew-delivery systems.

But with no guarantee that any of the commercial ventures will pan out, NASA is paying Russia to transport U.S. astronauts and their supplies to the station during the gap and is prepared to pay the European and Japanese space agencies to make additional cargo runs if needed.

Griffin also reminded the subcommittee that the only reason NASA is permitted to buy Progress and Soyuz rides from Russia is because Congress granted the space agency temporary relief from the Iran-Syria Non-Proliferation Act, which restricts NASA's purchase of space station-related goods and services from Russia. Unless Congress renews the relief it granted in 2005, NASA will not be allowed to buy Russian rides after 2011. If U.S. firms are not ready to transport astronauts to the station between 2012 and Orion's debut in 2015, Griffin said, NASA either would have to seek permission to buy more Soyuz or keep its astronauts on the ground for a few years.

The two staunch human spaceflight supporters who presided over the hearing, Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) were not pleased with Griffin's assessments. Nelson called NASA's reliance on Russia especially "perilous" in light of the chilling relationship between Washington and Moscow.

"Can anybody in America predict the geopolitics of Russia in 2012 particularly given what we see are the actions of Vladimir Putin right now?" Nelson said.

"And here we have a plan set up by NASA that is going to rely on us paying for Russian vehicles at the same time that we are laying off maybe 5,000 people at the Kennedy Space Center," Nelson said, adding that there is no guarantee Russia will sell the United States Soyuz vehicles at any price in 2012 given the unpredictable and worrisome turns that nation is taking.

'I don't want to leave this committee with the impression that we are in a good position. We are not," Griffin said, adding he finds it "unseemly in the extreme" that the United States very soon could find itself dependent on another nation for putting its astronauts in orbit. But, Griffin said, NASA is doing the best it can within its existing $16.5 billion annual budget.

He also challenged Nelson's assertion that 5,000 of the roughly 15,000 civil servants and contractors that work at Florida's Kennedy Space Center would lose their jobs once the shuttle retires, calling the estimate "on the high side."

Still, he acknowledged that there would be layoffs and said NASA is identifying new roles and responsibilities for Kennedy to blunt the impact of losing the shuttle program.

Turning the topic to money, Hutchison asked how much NASA would need to reduce the gap between the last flight of the shuttle and the first flight of Orion and Ares.

Richard Gilbrech, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, told the subcommittee that shaving 18 months off Orion and Ares' development is still technically achievable but would cost an extra $1 billion in 2009 and again in 2010. Bringing the delivery date back inside 2014, Gilbrech said, would require an extra $350 million in 2009 and $400 million in 2010 – roughly the budget of two moderately-priced space science missions.

Hutchison, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was interested in finding NASA the extra money it would need to narrow the gap and would be willing to examine a combination of new money and cuts to other parts of the agency's budget to get the job done.

"I would like to look at that, because it's a worthy goal," Hutchinson said. "I would think this would be a priority the president and the American people would think would be a worthy goal."

But Hutchison also disclosed during the hearing how tough finding extra money can be.

Hutchison, along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) and several other co-sponsors, managed to get a spending bill through the Senate this year that would increase NASA's 2008 budget by nearly $2 billion over current levels, including a one-time $1 billion cash infusion to help the agency financially recover from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia Accident.

Hutchison, however, said the extra $1 billion does not look like it will survive legislative conference with the House, which passed its own NASA spending bill over the summer.

"You know that I along with Sen. Mikulski tried to put $1 billion into this year's appropriation, which at this point does not appear to be successful in the conference committee," Hutchison said.