Extra Shuttle Flight Will Protect Against Private Spaceship Delays, NASA Chief Says

WASHINGTON? NASA needs to fly an additional space shuttle mission to theInternationalSpace Station next year because development of privately owned rocketsandspacecraft designed to ferry cargo to the orbiting outpost is likely tobedelayed, according to the agency's top official.

"Weare hoping to fly a thirdshuttle mission in June, what everybody calls thelaunch-on-needmission ? and that's really needed to [buy down] the risk for thedevelopmenttime for commercial cargo," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden toldcivilservants at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.,during an all-handsaddress Nov. 16. "If there's any delay in ?delivery ofcommercial capability to take cargo to station, we could find ourselvesin asituation as bad as having to de-man the station or take it down tothreepeople, and we really don't want to do that."

NASAplans to retire its fleet of space shuttle orbiters next year and relyin parton commercially operated space transportation systems to deliver cargo,andeventually astronauts, to the space station. However, development ofcargodelivery systems under the agency's Commercial Orbital TransportationServices(COTS) program is taking longer than expected.

Currentlythere are only two shuttle flights remaining on the official manifest, onescheduled for Dec. 3 and theother slated for February. But in October, U.S. President Barack Obamasignedinto law a bill that authorizes an additional mission to take place inJune,though it remains to be seen whether congressional appropriators willprovidethe necessary funding in a 2011 spending package anticipated in thecoming months.

Boldensaid the extra shuttle flight would allow NASA to ship additionalsupplies tothe station "that would take us out and give the commercial guys anopportunity to experience delays, as we anticipate they will, becauseeverybodydoes."

Bolden'scomments were detailed in a transcript of the all-hands meetingobtained bySpace News. His remarks covered myriad programmatic and policy issues,touchingon  plans to reduce facilities within the agency, build a new heavy-liftlaunch vehicle and implement management changesdesigned to curbcost growth on the James Webb Space Telescope, and the potential forfuturecooperation in human spaceflight with China.

Boldenalso said the impending Republican takeover of the U.S. House ofRepresentatives at worst could translate to lower spending for NASAprogramsthan was authorized in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which calls forspending $58 billion over the next three years. However, he assured theagencyemployees that such fiscal constraints would not be devastating andthat theagency could adapt.

"We'regoing to look at it and we're going to make determinations as to whatwe thinkwe can realistically do. And what we don't think we can do is going tocome offthe table," Bolden said, referring to the authorization law. Inadditionto the additional shuttle flight, the measure directs NASA to extendspacestation operations to 2020, begin development work next year on a newheavy-liftrocket, build a multipurpose crew capsule, continue to support thecommercialspaceflight industry, and boost spending on Earth science andtechnologyresearch and development.

However,Bolden said NASA would be unable to do everything that Congress and thepresident have called for.

"Weare going to have to go and tell them, 'Great idea. We can do that. Butif wedo that, we can't do this,'" he said.

Boldensaid Congress likely will not pass new spending legislation beforeMarch. Inthe meantime, NASA and other government agencies would continueoperating at2010 funding levels under a series of stop-gap spending measures knownascontinuing resolutions.

AlthoughNASA expects to terminate its Constellation program, a collection ofhardwaredevelopment efforts geared toward returning astronauts to the Moon by2020,some elements will be salvaged, Bolden said. These include the J-2Xupper-stageengine whose development is overseen by Marshall.

"TheJ-2X undoubtedly will play a critical role, not just in NASA butprobablyacross the national front in terms of providing an upper-stagecapability,"Bolden said of the engine, which is being developed by Canoga Park,Calif.-based Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

"Thebig question for us is what do we use for a first-stage engine," Boldensaid, adding that the choices include engines fueled by liquid oxygenandliquid hydrogen, or by liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. "It seemsrealsimple but it's not. It makes a big difference in cost," he said.

Underthe NASA Authorization Act of 2010, NASA is directed to build aheavy-liftlauncher next year that is ultimately capable of lifting at least 130metrictons to orbit, a performance requirement some experts assert can bebestachieved using solid-rocket motors, such as those built byMinneapolis-basedAlliant Techsystems (ATK) at facilities in Promontory, Utah.

Membersof Utah's congressional delegation came away from a Nov. 18 meetingwith Boldenand NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver questioning whether theagencyintends to comply with the NASA Authorization Act's guidance on heavylift.

"NASAhas signaled an interest in possibly circumventing the law," Sen. OrrinHatch (R-Utah) said in a statement released after the meeting. Hatchsaid hecalled the meeting "to explain in no uncertain terms the Utahcongressional delegation's interest in ensuring that Utah's solidrocket motorindustry is protected."

AlthoughNASA is currently evaluating options for a deepspace exploration architecture, including designsfor a heavy-liftlaunch vehicle, the agency recently awarded 13 contracts with acombined valueof $7.5 million to study design and propulsion alternatives for aheavy-liftlaunch system. The awardees represent a broad cross section of the U.S.rocketindustry, including ATK.

Boldensaid that while cost and technical issues are important, politics wouldplay arole in the heavy-lift launch vehicle decision as well.

"Myaction right now is to go deal with the political side of my house andfind outwhat is it that the nation, that the leadership of the nation, wants usto do,"he said. "Do they care? Or do they want us to bring them the bestanswerand that's what we'll do?"

Answeringfor JWST

Duringa question-and-answer session following his remarks, Bolden was askedtoaccount for new cost growth and schedule delays on the JamesWebb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA's next-generationflagship astronomymission and successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The program isfacing aminimum $1.5 billion cost increase that could affect funding for otherspacescience priorities. In addition, it is expected to launch at least 15monthsbehind schedule, according to the findings of an independent reviewreleased inNovember.

"Mypersonal feeling, it is incredibly important, not just to theastrophysicscommunity but to the world, that we make JWST successful," Bolden said."So while everything's on the table, you know, the cancellation of JWSTisnot something that's sitting in my head."

Boldensaid NASA is trying to "get a grip" on the program by moving it fromwithin the agency's Astrophysics Division into a new program office atNASAheadquarters. He also said a "bottoms-up review" of expected cost andschedule concerns is under way.

"Wewill very likely have to find the money inside NASA, but that has notbeendetermined yet," he said. "We haven't asked anybody for additionalmoney."

Boldensaid the agency should have gone to Congress sooner with its JWSTfunding woes.

"Wenow know that we should have asked for more money and we didn't," hesaid."It's too early to tell you what the bottom line is yet. It will havesomeimpact on it, but I think we can work it out with the changes we make."

Transcriptof Bolden'sNov. 16 Marshall all-hands address

Thisarticle was provided by Space News, dedicated tocovering all aspectsof the space industry

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Contributing Writer

Amy Svitak is a writer for Space Intel Report, covering the global space industry. Her older work can also be found in Aviation Week & Space Technology, where she covered European space and defense news, as well as in Space News, where her articles tracked the development of regulations on the up-and-coming commercial space sector, among other topics.