Lawmakers: Funding Shortfall May Lead to Mothballed Space Shuttle

NASA Safeguards Shuttle Atlantis, Fuel Tank Against Storm
The space shuttle Atlantis rolls into NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility bay 1, where processing will begin for mission STS-115, the 19th flight to the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA/KSC.)

Several lawmakers havewarned President Bush in a letter that if NASA doesn't get the budget it seeksfor 2007 to 2010, it would have to retire shuttle Atlantis immediately, cuttingjobs and gutting the vision for space exploration.

The Office of Managementand Budget's plan would "under-fund the Shuttle program by $3 billion to$6 billion," a Dec. 9 letter says, leading to "the immediateretirement of the Shuttle Atlantis and a cut from the needed 19 Shuttlemissions to between 8 and 11 missions."

John Logsdon, director ofGeorge Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said a proposal to go totwo orbiters has little support.

"It would mean thatNASA couldn't honor its international commitments," he said, "and thepolicy people at the White House have said that's not acceptable."

If NASA got a smallerbudget increase than requested and Atlantis were retired, jobs at Kennedy SpaceCenter would be eliminated.

"Retiring Atlantiswill only save money if you reduce the work force," said Rep. Dave Weldon,R-Indialantic, who also signed the letter. More than 14,000 people work at thespace center.

"We just wanted to putthem on notice that if they were going to pursue a budget strategy along thoselines," Weldon said, "they were going to get into a big fight with abunch of us."

NASA would not be able tofix the Hubble Space Telescope or finish the International Space Station, which"will gravely upset our international partners," the lawmakers'letter said.

It went so far to say theother countries could ally themselves with China's space program, which also isaiming for moon landings.

"That'sscare-mongering," said Logsdon, who served on the Columbia AccidentInvestigation Board.

No details

Scott Milburn, with theOffice of Management and Budget, wouldn't reveal details of the 2007 budget,which comes out in February. Until now, he said, President Bush has increasedNASA funding by 15 percent.

Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo,also signed the letter. He and other lawmakers have spoken with budget officechief Joshua Bolten about the issue.

"OMB lacks thedetailed knowledge of the ramifications when they make a proposal likethis," Feeney said.

Flying the shuttles 19 moretimes before their planned 2010 retirement is likely to cost at least $22billion, which lawmakers say is $3 billion to $6 billion more than what'scurrently allotted.

The NASA budget makes upless than 1 percent of the national budget, but "there's lots of claimantsand not enough money, particularly post-Katrina and with the war," Logsdonsaid.

Budget crunch

Feeney acknowledged thebudget crunch but said NASA wasn't like other programs.

"Underfunding theshuttle is like building half a bridge," he said.

In this case, the bridge isthe space station.

The economic impact wouldbe felt closer to home, where recruiting and training new workers for theshuttles' successor could be more expensive than retaining current ones, Feeneysaid.

"It will destroy thework force at places like Kennedy Space Center and Johnson and elsewhere,"he said.

Normal politics

Logsdon said the letteramounted to normal budget politics as negotiations progress. Though the sciencebudget is likely to remain static under NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, hesaid, shuttles and the future crew exploration vehicle remain the priority,making retiring Atlantis unlikely as a compromise is reached.

"It would be anunfortunate decision," he said, "and I think the people who aremaking that decision know it."

Florida Today staffwriters Todd Halvorson and John Kelly contributed to this article

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Chris Kridler
Contributing Writer

Chris Kridler is a writer, editor, photographer and storm chaser who authored a group of storm-chasing adventure novels called Storm Seekers. As a reporter covering space, her subjects have included space shuttle missions, the Mars Rovers from California’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and a Soyuz launch and mission from Kazakhstan and Russia. Much of that work was published through her longtime column at Florida Today. Her photographs have been featured in magazines and books, including the covers of The Journal of Meteorology, the book Winderful, and the Wallace and Hobbs Atmospheric Science textbook. She has also been featured in Popular Photography. Kridler started chasing tornadoes in 1997, and continues the adventure every spring in Tornado Alley.