NASA Chief Pushes for Shuttle's Replacement

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP)-- NASA's new boss made an impassioned case Thursday for speeding updevelopment of a new spacecraft so that the United States will not lose accessto space when the shuttle is retired, but warned something else will have to besacrificed.

Administrator MichaelGriffin told a Senate subcommittee in Washingtonthat to cover the cost of the shuttle replacement's accelerated debut, he may be forced to delay some space station andexploration research.

"We can't do everything onour plate, and we have to have priorities and first things first,'' he said.

Griffin wants to fly theproposed new spacecraft as soon as possible once the space shuttle fleet isretired in 2010 - avoiding a four-year gap in which the United States wouldhave no way to launch astronauts.

Thecurrent plan, which he inherited when he took over NASA last month, calls for the new vehicle to carry a crew intoorbit by 2014 and be capable of traveling to the moon and Mars, withmodifications, in the years beyond.

Griffin said he finds that four-year launchgap unacceptable and hopes to have a plan for closing it by mid-July. The newcrew exploration vehicle, or CEV, is a key part of President Bush's plan forreturning astronauts to the moon by 2020.

"CEV needs to be safe, itneeds to be simple, it needs to be soon,'' Griffin told reporters later in theafternoon.

The six-year gap betweenthe 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission and the 1981 debut of the shuttle damaged boththe U.S. space program andthe nation, Griffinsaid. "I don't want to do it again.''

"The United States of Americashould always have its own access to space,'' said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

Griffin told the Senate subcommittee oncommerce, justice and science that he does not know how much it will cost toaccelerate development of the crew exploration vehicle, still in the earlydesign phase. But he said by choosing a single contractor in 2006, rather thanhaving two contractors competing in flight in 2008 as envisioned by the former NASA administrator, $1 billion or morecould be saved for use in the near term.

Additional money could besaved by putting off research at the international space station - such asexperiments geared toward long-term moon stays or Mars habitation _ andpossibly eliminating the handful of shuttle flights needed to fly thatequipment, Griffin said. Eighteen shuttle missions are currently on the booksto finish building the space station, along with 10 supply runs for a grandtotal of 28.

Right now, NASA's three remaining shuttles aregrounded as the agency struggles to remedy all the safety concerns arising fromthe 2003 Columbiatragedy. Managers hope to launch Discovery on thefirst mission since the disaster in mid-July; repair work is going slow,though, and the schedule is tight.

Griffin assured the senators he would use ascalpel rather than a meat ax in cutting the research budget for the spacestation and other exploration systems, and would look at delaying projects notyet begun.

"Now the research ... isvery valuable and it must be done,'' he said. "But if it is delayed a very fewyears in order to allow us to complete and affect a suitable transition betweensystems, then I believe that that delay would be worth it. And that would bewhere I would look for the money.''

Griffin pledged that NASA will complete the space station,currently just half built. But if the station still isn't finished when theshuttles are retired, the space agency may turn to unmanned rockets to haul upthe remaining gear.

As for the Hubble SpaceTelescope, Griffinhas ordered work to begin on one last shuttle servicing mission, with $291million set aside in next year's budget. Whether that mission takes place willdepend on the success of the next two shuttle missions.

Griffin's predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, ruledout Hubble visits by astronauts because of post-Columbia safety concerns.

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