Early Retirement for Space Shuttles Unlikely, Lawmakers Say

Hurricane Causes Minor Damage at Johnson Space Center
The exterior of the NASA facility in New Orleans East is damaged by the recent hurricanes as the storm from Hurricane Rita continues for a second day, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2005. External fuel tanks for the space shuttle are built at the facility. (Image credit: AP Photo/Bill Haber.)

CAPE CANAVERAL - The WhiteHouse this month asked NASA how much money could be saved by shutting down theshuttle program immediately instead of waiting until 2010 as planned.

A group of Republicanlawmakers led by Mike Pence of Indiana last week said the $104 billion toreplace the shuttles with a new spaceship and rockets to carry astronauts back to the moonought to be canceled to help pay to rebuild the hurricane-wrecked Gulf Coast.

Key Congressional leaderssaid there is little political support for either suggestion.

The two suggestions,however, when coupled with growing political pressure to cut federal spendingto offset recovery costs from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is spawningangst at Kennedy Space Center and other NASA facilities.

Brevard County lawmakerssaid they are confident NASA's budget for the shuttle program will remainintact, as will funding for the initial development of the hardware to sendastronauts back to the moon.

U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon,R-Indialantic, said he is aware the White House Office of Management and Budgetand others are asking questions about shuttle spending, including whether toshut the program down now instead of 2010.

"It's a legitimatequestion to ask," said Weldon, a member of the House AppropriationsCommittee that oversees NASA's annual budget. "If you aren't going to flyuntil the mid or latter part of next year and phase out the shuttle in 2010, whynot phase it out now and take the dollars and accelerate the Crew ExplorationVehicle?"

Such a decision is highlyunlikely, Weldon said, because the cost and political fallout far outweigh anysavings in dollars or time.

An early shutdown of theshuttle program would cost billions, including fees for breaking multi-billiondollar contracts with U.S. companies that work on the shuttle as well asinternational station partners.

No police change

The Office of Managementand Budget declined to comment on why it asked for early retirement estimates,sending questioners to NASA. Bob Jacobs, a spokesman at NASA's headquarters inWashington, said there has been no change in national policy regarding theshuttle retirement.

"The plan is to retirethe shuttles in 2010," he said.

Past government studiesindicate the cost of terminating the shuttle program early could range from aslittle as $5 billion to more than $10 billion. Among the costs: fees that wouldbe owed to other countries that invested billions of dollars in space stationcomponents the United States had promised to launch aboard the shuttle.

Walking away from the spacestation, which U.S. taxpayers now have invested at least $60 billion toconstruct and operate, would be a public relations disaster, Weldon said.

NASA Administrator MikeGriffin, in recent months, has repeatedly addressed calls to retire theshuttles now.

"Terminating theshuttle program abruptly at this time, while superficially attractive from somepoints of view, carries with it grave consequences for American preeminence inspace, and would be utterly devastating to the workforce we will need to carryout any future human spaceflight program," Griffin said in a speech lastmonth.

By contrast, an orderly transitionfrom the shuttle to the next program will help NASA retain workers andfacilities needed for the moon missions, Griffin said.

Sen. Bill Nelson,D-Melbourne, said it is inconceivable the White House or the Office ofManagement and Budget would order an early termination to the shuttle program.

"I wouldn't let'em," said Nelson, who flew on a shuttle mission in 1986 when he was acongressman representing Brevard County. "There would be plenty of othersenators up here who wouldn't let them."

Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo,said he and other lawmakers representing communities where NASA is a majoremployer, have used a variety of arguments to persuade skeptical colleagues tosupport the exploration plan.

"The politics offunding this is difficult," Feeney said Thursday during an appearance inWashington before the Commission on the Future of Space & Aeronautics inFlorida.

Costs in question

After President Bushannounced last year that NASA would pursue programs to explore the moon andeventually Mars, fiscal conservatives including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,questioned the cost of the plan.

Vice President Dick Cheney,Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay allpitched in publicly and behind the scenes to defend the moon plan and itsanticipated costs, Feeney said.

"We had to back offthe fiscal conservatives," Feeney said. "They were gettingentrenched."

Feeney said he and otherpro-space lawmakers spend a good deal of time trying to convert a large groupof colleagues who he classified as "agnostic" because they don't carewhat happens to NASA.

So far this year, thepressure from key space supporters in the White House and Congress appears tobe working when it comes time to vote.

A NASA authorization bill,including language supportive of the moon plans, sailed through the House by avote of 383 to 15. The full Senate is expected to vote on its version of thesame bill within a week.

Similarly, the annualappropriations bills that provide funding for NASA, cleared the House andSenate this year with no major revisions or challenges to the space program.

Both chambers approvedapproximately $16.4 billion for NASA in 2006, slightly more than in 2005. Bothchambers must reconcile minor differences before voting on a final version thatwill be sent to President Bush for his signature.

Day of reckoning

Despite the support, somelawmakers fear NASA and Congress still face a painful day of reckoning as theyattempt to keep the shuttles flying through 2010 while building a new CrewExploration Vehicle and launchers to go to the moon.

Current NASA budgetprojection shows yearly shuttle costs dropping from $4.5 billion in 2005 to$2.4 billion in 2010, the year the orbiters retire. The space agency has notrevealed how it plans to cut the shuttle budget in half while mounting to fouror five flights a year as the current manifest shows.

"The clash comes whenyou get to the point you have launched all the components to the space stationthat you can and you get to 2010," Nelson said. "At that point Idon't think there is any choice but to increase the budget to continuelaunching the shuttle."

At last week's newsconference to unveil the new spaceship and rockets, Griffin was asked whetherthe agency would need more money than currently budgeted to fly the shuttlesthrough 2010. If the shuttle budget increases, he said, that may lead theagency to push back other projects, though he did not specify which ones.

"We can fly the spaceshuttle through 2010 with no more money than we have in the five-year budgetplan," he said. "The question is what effect that will have on otherdates within the program and we don't know that yet."

Publishedunder license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2005 FLORIDA TODAY.No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the writtenconsent of FLORIDA TODAY.

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Director of Data Journalism, ABC TV stations

John Kelly is the director of data journalism for ABC-owned TV stations at Walt Disney Television. An investigative reporter and data journalist, John covered space exploration, NASA and aerospace as a reporter for Florida Today for 11 years, four of those on the Space Reporter beat. John earned a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and wrote for the Shelbyville News and Associated Press before joining Florida Today's space team. In 2013, John joined the data investigation team at USA Today and became director of data journalism there in 2018 before joining Disney in 2019. John is a two-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow award in 2020 and 2021, won a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2020 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017. You can follow John on Twitter.