WASHINGTON - Governmentauditors faulted NASA on Tuesday for failing to adequately investigate cheaper,safer alternatives to the space shuttle for delivering parts and supplies tothe International Space Station.
With just five years untilthe three remaining shuttles retire, NASA has 28 flights scheduled to completework on the orbiting research laboratory. That's a flight rate of more thanfive shuttle missions per year, which even agency leaders acknowledge couldprove to be too many.
Lawmakers in Congress havepressed the agency to examine lower-cost missions to the space station usingexpendable rockets and cargo containers.
Last year, NASAheadquarters officials dismissed the notion as too costly and risky. But thoseconclusions lacked supporting documentation, according to a 10-month study bythe Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
"It's now clear NASAhad not done its homework on vetting space shuttle alternatives," saidSen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of several lawmakers who asked the GAO toinvestigate NASA claims last year.
The GAO findings likelywill have little real influence on NASA because agency officials, spurred on bynew administrator Michael Griffin, are conducting more detailed analysis of thetechnology and costs involved in shifting some of the space station missionsfrom the shuttle to other delivery vehicles.
At a May Senate hearing,Griffin acknowledged the shuttles may not be up to making 28 flights in five years.He said shuttle program engineers and managers are considering dropping some ofthe missions.
A new cargo-only modulecould be employed to replace the lost shuttle missions, Griffin said. Theagency is currently evaluating 26 proposals from companies interested inferrying cargo to and from the space station. International partners Japan andEurope are developing automated cargo haulers that can launch on rockets.Currently, Russia's Progress automated cargo spacecraft are the only means ofresupplying the outpost while the U.S. shuttles are grounded.
NASA officials indicatedthey agree with the GAO's findings and outlined ongoing efforts to acceleratethe design and production of a cargo-only launch vehicle.
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