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Space Shuttles Will Keep Flying Through Early 2011, Report Says

NASA Moves Space Shuttle Discovery to Launch Pad
Space shuttle Discovery is seen after completing its 3.4 mile trip from Kennedy's Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A on March 3, 2010 in preparation for an April 5 launch on NASA's STS-131 mission to the International Space Station.
(Image: © NASA)

NASA has made steady progress toward the planned retirementof its three aging space shuttles this September, but will likely not completethe fleet?s current flight schedule until February 2011, a new report hasfound.

The 32-page audit was released by NASA?s Office of the InspectorGeneral, the agency?s financial watchdog, on Thursday ? one day before top spaceshuttle officials planned to meet at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida todiscuss plans for the next shuttle mission, which is slated to blast off onApril 5.

?Based on calculations by the Office of InspectorGeneral, historical flight rates, and internal NASA evaluations, NASA is notlikely to meet its September 2010 timetable, and it will most likely take untilthe second quarter of FY 2011 to complete the last of the planned Space Shuttleflights,? the report stated. February 2011, it went on, is a better estimatefor the final flight.

NASA currently plans to fly four finalshuttle missions before mothballing its three space shuttles ? Discovery,Atlantis and Endeavour.

In addition to Discovery?s April mission, the shuttlesare slated to launch on May 18 (Atlantis), July 29 (Endeavour) and Sept. 16 (Discovery).All four missions, as well as a fifth flight that launched earlier this year inFebruary aboard Endeavour, are bound for the International Space Station todeliver vital supplies, science equipment, spare parts or new modules.

NASA officials have said repeatedly that, barring majorunexpected delays, the agency should be able to fly the remaining shuttlemissions in 2010. In fact, U.S. President Barack Obama included $600 million inNASA?s 2011 fiscal year budget request to fund shuttle operations throughDecember 2010, in case of those extra months are needed.

?Given the performance of the space shuttle inrecent missions and the diligence of the shuttle workforce, NASA has highconfidence that, barring any unforeseen technical, weather, or payload deliveryissues, the manifest can be safely completed by December 2010,? officials with NASA?sspace operations division in charge of shuttle flights told SPACE.com in ane-mail.

But NASA should still seek some assurance that funding willbe available for shuttle flights should they slip into early 2011, the auditsaid.

NASA spends about $200 million a month on the spaceshuttle program and will likely spend about $54 million in overtime pay in aneffort to keep stay on track, the new report stated. However, since that isstill cheaper than the cost of rescheduling the entire shuttle flight manifestto officially target a December 2010 retirement, NASA?s Inspector Generaloffice had no recommendations that the space agency change its current flightschedule.

NASA does, however, need to finalize plans to deal withthe post-shuttle era transition and retirement, the report said. By preparingin advance, the space agency will be able to manage the estimated $460 millionexpected to be required to handle shuttle transition and retirement, it added.

The new report comes on the heels of another audit, submittedTuesday, that criticized NASA for overspendingon conferences in 2009. The shuttle report also comes at a time when NASA?sshuttle and human spaceflight program are in flux.

NASA decided to retire its space shuttle fleet in thewake of the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew in2003. But the agency also initially planned to build new spacecraft and rocketsin order to maintain a government-derived U.S. human spaceflight capability.

The space shuttle fleet has been flying since April 1981.Its retirement this year will end nearly 30 years of shuttle flight.

Several lawmakers are pushing to extendthe shuttle program to fill in an expected years-long gap between theshuttle era?s end and the availability new American spacecraft and rocketscapable of launching astronauts into space.

In February, President Obama ordered the cancellation ofNASA?s Constellation program overseeing the development of the new Orion spacecraftand Ares rockets to replace the shuttle fleet.

Instead, the president proposed NASA embrace commercialspacecraft instead, and set aside $6 billion over the next five years in theagency?s budget request to fund those new private space endeavors. That wouldfree NASA to focus on more bold space initiatives, such as manned missions tothe moon, asteroids and Mars, supporters have said.

President Obama is expected hold a space summit inFlorida on April 15 to discuss more details about his new space plan. If allgoes according to plan, that summit will occur during the shuttle Discovery?s missionto deliver new science gear, supplies and spare parts to the InternationalSpace Station.

Top shuttle program engineers and managers will spendFriday discussing Discovery's readiness for that planned 13-day spaceflight.They are expected to spend at least some time reviewing the tests of heliumpressurization lines in part of the shuttle?s reaction control system.

Earlier this month, engineers found what appeared to be aleakor stuck valve in the helium lines that pressurize the aft-mountedthrusters on Discovery?s right rear engine pod. Since then, they performed moretests of other hardware associated with the system, and founded it in goodworking order.

Shuttle managers will review all those tests Friday anddecided if Discovery is indeed ready for launch. If so, the shuttle would becleared for a planned launch on April 5.

Liftoff is slated for 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021 GMT) on EasterMonday.

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