NASA Studies Shuttle Program Extension, Fall Launch Delay
In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, space shuttle Atlantis is moved across the I-beam toward the waiting external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters in high bay 3 on Aug. 23, 2008.
Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

This story was updated at 6:52 p.m. EDT.

NASA is taking a look at what might be required to postpone the retirement of its three space shuttles until their Orion capsule replacement begins operational flight in 2015, but only as a preparatory measure for Congress and the incoming president, agency officials said Friday.

The study, called for by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, is aimed at preparing for inquiries on how the agency intends to fill the gap between the shuttle fleet?s retirement in 2010 and the first flights of Orion, said John Yembrick, a spokesperson for spaceflight operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

?The Administrator asked the program managers to evaluate this potential of flying through 2015,? Yembrick told SPACE.com, stressing that the agency currently is not planning to fly shuttles beyond 2010. ?We?re doing the analysis so we can gather the data, and so when we?re asked we can give some smart, timely answers.?

Yembrick said NASA officials hope to complete the study by the end of September. It was spurred in part by a recent letter by presidential candidate John McCain (R- Ariz.) and other senators that beseeched President George W. Bush to avoid actions that would prevent NASA from being able to continue flying space shuttles beyond 2010. Presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has also pledged support for NASA?s Constellation program, which includes Orion development, and said in the past that adding additional shuttle flights to close the gap between Orion and shuttle retirement was a possibility.

NASA currently has a deal with Russia to fly astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft through 2011, but would have to seek new approvals from Congress to extend the agreement beyond that deadline.

An internal e-mail discussing the new study was posted to the Web site of the Florida newspaper the Orlando Sentinel on Friday.

NASA plans to launch 10 more shuttle missions by 2010 to complete construction of the International Space Station and overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle?s successor, the Orion Crew Launch Vehicle and its Ares I rocket, are not expected to begin crewed flights until 2015 at the latest, though NASA is working toward an internal 2014 target for the first operational missions.

Fall launch date under review

Meanwhile, NASA mission managers are discussing whether to push back the planned Oct. 8 launch of the shuttle Atlantis on the final flight overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope due processing delays spawned the recent Tropical Storm Fay.

Fay passed over NASA?s Kennedy Space Center spaceport in Cape Canaveral, Fla., last week, forcing the center to close for several days until the weather cleared. Challenges readying the new instruments and replacement parts to launch toward Hubble aboard Atlantis could delay the mission by two days or so, but NASA will continue to work toward an Oct. 8 liftoff as long as possible, Yembrick said.

?Because of Fay, the payload is going to be delayed getting out on the launch pad,? he added. ?If that happens, we?ll have to reassess launch dates accordingly.?

Atlantis? seven-astronaut crew will haul new science instruments and spare parts to Hubble for the fifth and final service mission to the iconic orbital observatory. That equipment was slated to be delivered to the launch pad by Sept. 17, but may now arrive two days late due to Fay-related delays, Yembrick said.

NASA is also tracking two more storms, Hurricane Gustav in the Caribbean and Tropical Storm Hannah in the Atlantic Ocean and their possible impact to space center activities.

As of 5:00 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Gustav was nearing hurricane strength as it moved west-northwest toward the Cayman Islands. The storm was about 100 miles (160 km) to the east of Grand Cayman and moving northwest at about 12 mph (19 kph) with maximum sustained winds reaching speeds of nearly 75 mph (120 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center.

The center?s three-day projections predict Gustav will pass over Cuba and reach the coast of Louisiana early next week. NASA?s Michoud Assembly Facility, which builds the external fuel tanks used for space shuttle launches, is based in New Orleans, while the agency?s Stennis Space Center that tests shuttle main engines is based in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Yembrick said both the Michoud and Stennis centers will be closed after the Labor Day holiday on Monday, though employees should call in on Tuesday to be sure.

Tropical Storm Hannah, meanwhile, was passing about 215 miles (345 km) north of the Leeward Islands and moving about 12 mph (19 kph) with maximum sustained winds of about 50 mph (85 kph). Current forecasts for Hannah predict the storm will turn west toward the Bahamas over the next several days, according to a National Hurricane Center chart.