Government watchdogs havelisted the impending retirement of the shuttle among its list of a baker'sdozen of issues needing immediate attention from President-elect Barack Obama.
NASA plans to retirethe three-shuttle fleet at the end of 2010, and its replacement isn'tscheduled to take astronauts backinto space until 2015.
"Extending the shuttlemay offer the best course for the International Space Station, as it lessensour independence on the only other means to get to the station: Russian-builtvehicles, as well as vehicles that may not come online when expected," saidCristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office.
She made the comment in abrief introductory video on the issue, one of 13 identified by the GAO as areasthe Obama administration and the incoming Congress should address during itsfirst year.
The list, the centerpieceof a new Web site the watchdog agency introduced Thursday, is intended to helpsmooth the leadership transition across the federal government.
The GAO questioned thewisdom of relyingon Russian spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts, given recent politicalstrains after Russia invaded the neighboring country of Georgia.
Many congressionallawmakers have expressed opposition to dependence on Russia as well.
However, the GAO also notedthat extendingthe shuttle's life could have "significant consequences" on thefuture of human spaceflight. Specifically, it could hamper freeing up moneyNASA needs for Constellation, the program to build the next generation ofrockets and space capsules expected to take Americans to the space station and,ultimately, back to the moon.
NASA has been studying thecost of adding more shuttle flights and extending the fleet's service. Theagency estimates that keeping the shuttle flying after 2010 would cost at least$2.5 billion per year and require restarting various production lines.
During his campaign, Obamapromised to increase the agency's budget by $2 billion a year to reducethe five-year gap in human flights.
Whatever the decision,Chaplain said one must be made soon.
"Why the urgency?Already, shuttle contracts are being phased out and shuttle facilities arebeing closed or transferred," she said.
During the presidentialcampaign, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson had pressed Obama and his Republican opponent,Sen. John McCain, to make a decision about the shuttle's fate as soon aspossible.
Nelson continues to talkwith Obama aides about extending the shuttle's life, said Bryan Gulley, aspokesman for the Orlando Democrat.
"I'm not surprisedthis issue made the (GAO) list," he said. "This isn't something thatcan wait a year or two. NASA has to know now. And the Russian politicalsituation has made the issue more complicated."
Listing the shuttle'sfuture as part of the GAO's "urgent issues" for the Obamaadministration brings heightened awareness to the fate of thousands of shuttleworkers at Kennedy Space Center whose jobs are hanging on decisions made aboutwhether to end the program in 2010.
Publishedunder license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2008 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion ofthis material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDATODAY.
- Video - Mock Orion Capsule Crashes to Earth
- Video - NASA's Constellation Journey Begins: Part 1, Part 2
- Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation