CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA and its supporters in Congress have won a behind-the-scenes battle with White House budget writers who suggested retiring one or more of the shuttles early and canceling some remaining flights to save money.
The 2007 federal budget to be released Monday is not expected to slash shuttle missions or change the goals that President Bush set two years ago, according to Congressional leaders, analysts and NASA officials.
NASA remains under orders to fly the shuttles through 2010, finish building the International Space Station and then replace the shuttles by 2014 with new spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to the moon.
"It is clear that the White House has made a policy decision that we are going to honor our international agreements on ISS, and we are going to continue to fly the shuttle in order to launch the international components," said John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at George Washington University who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said the same thing several times in recent weeks, stressing that national space policy is unchanged and the agency is moving ahead with plans for the shuttle missions necessary to finish the space station and possibly service the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Our best guess at this point is that the shuttle will . . . execute something like 17, 18 flights between now and retirement," Griffin said while at KSC last month for the launch of a probe to Pluto.
Just last week, the agency adjusted its contract with Lockheed Martin to purchase 18 shuttle fuel tanks. The deal will bring NASA's total inventory to 22 tanks, which officials said covers the agency's needs until 2010.
That's good short-term news for thousands of people who work on shuttles and station programs at Kennedy Space Center, where anxiety built as the White House Office of Management and Budget ordered studies this fall and winter into ways to dramatically cut the shuttle budget.
No extra money
Financial, technical and political challenges remain for the shuttle team three years after the re-entry breakup of Columbia and the deaths of the seven astronauts aboard.
First, the shuttles are more expensive to fly than ever before. However, the cost of the war, hurricane recovery and other priorities have pinched the federal budget enough that the White House says there's no extra money to be had for space. NASA remains fortunate in an era when most federal agencies' spending is being held flat.
Hence, the NASA budget to be released Monday will not include the $5 billion in extra money that agency officials say will be needed between now and 2010 to pay the higher bills for all of the shuttle missions currently on the schedule.
Instead, NASA expects its budget to stay in line with projections made when Bush introduced the space plan in 2004.
"NASA is not looking forward or expecting any gifts of robust growth from either the administration or the Congress," Griffin said. "We expect to keep approximately the funding we have."
That means other projects have to be canceled, cut back or postponed in order to free money for the shuttle's last missions. A steady trickle of reports in recent months indicate several space science and aeronautics projects are being cancelled or pushed back. The budget release is sure to include the details of exactly which programs might be in jeopardy, though Griffin said the agency's science portfolio is not being "whacked" for the sake of the shuttle or moon missions.
"We are not, in your words, we are not 'whacking' the space science program to pay for human exploration," Griffin said. "This is not 'The Sopranos'; we don't whack people or programs here."
Also, NASA is studying adjustments to the rockets and spacecraft proposed for the new moon program with an eye toward changes that could cut the early-years development costs. In the end, money could be saved by slowing the program, analysts said.
Logsdon noted Griffin's internal goals are to fly people on the new spaceship by 2012 and land the first crew on the moon by 2018. However, those are internal goals. The president's deadlines were to fly the ship by 2014 and return to the moon by 2020. In more recent speeches, Griffin has begun saying his bid to speed the program up is something he wants to do, but is not a requirement.
Technically and politically, the program faces a far more imminent hurdle -- fixing the dangerous foam insulation that destroyed Columbia and that broke free again during the launch of the shuttles' return to flight mission in July.
Should dangerously-large chunks of foam insulation come off the external fuel tank again, after more than three years and several billion dollars spent on the shuttle program since the Columbia accident, U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, said he will have a more difficult time justifying the expense to his colleagues.
"It's going to be really hard to save at that point, really hard to save," Feeney said. "One of the arguments that NASA uses is that we have a contractual obligation to 15 other countries with the ISS. There is no sympathy for that argument with the Congress."
Feeney and other lawmakers from space states such as Florida, Texas, Alabama and California rallied to lobby the White House in meetings and in letters not to cut back shuttle flights. In the days leading up to Tuesday night's State of the Union speech, U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Indialantic, said he remains anxious about funding for the program.
"I'm very concerned," Weldon said. "We have some very difficult budget issues coming up this year. Our ability to fund the shuttle and the space station while we continue to develop a replacement for the shuttle in the context of funding the war in Iraq and recovering from Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding New Orleans, we have some very difficult challenges we have to address."
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