New Resolution Could Delay Shuttle Retirement
Space shuttles Atlantis (left) and Endeavour are poised on their pads for a rare double view on April 18, 2009.
Credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com.

U.S. House and Senate negotiators agreed Tuesday on a budget resolution that would eliminate a hard deadline for the retirement of NASA's shuttle fleet and provide $2.5 billion to fly in 2011.

Supporters say the resolution - which is expected to be up for a final vote this week - could help avert the type of schedule pressure that led to the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia accidents.

It also could stave off an estimated 3,500 job cuts at Kennedy Space Center in 2011 while minimizing a five-year gap between the last shuttle mission and the first piloted flights of next-generation spacecraft.

But, ultimately, the budget resolution is just a recommendation and not an actual funding decision.

"This budget is a significant step towards maintaining safety, minimizing the spaceflight gap, and preserving the highly skilled workforce at Kennedy Space Center and throughout Florida," U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, said in a statement.

"Kennedy Space Center is an economic engine for our community and I will not stand idly by while these jobs are at risk."

The Bush administration in 2004 directed NASA to complete the International Space Station and retire the shuttle fleet by Sept. 30, 2010. The agency also was told to develop a new piloted spaceship by 2014 and return American astronauts to the moon by 2020.

NASA's new Apollo-style Orion spacecraft will not be ready to fly before March 2015. The U.S. plans to rely on Russia to fly American astronauts to and from the station in the interim. Legislators with ties to KSC - including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge - have been lobbying to eliminate the September 2010 deadline. It was set by the White House Office of Management and Budget after Bush outlined a new national space policy in the wake of the Columbia accident.

Nine more shuttle flights are on NASA's schedule: eight to complete the station and a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission scheduled to launch May 11.

NASA's historical annual shuttle flight rate is about four or five missions a year. But the agency's post-Columbia flight rate has been about three per year. Some question whether NASA can safely fly the nine remaining missions by the end of September 2010.

Accident investigators cited schedule pressure as a contributing cause in both the Challenger and Columbia catastrophes.

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