Jan 9, 2009

Science - NASA: Keeping shuttle costs $3 billion yearly

Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON – The cost of continuing the life of the space shuttle past next year's planned retirement is $3 billion a year plus extending the risk of a deadly accident, NASA's chief said Thursday.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told an industry group that NASA has looked into what it would take to keep flying the aging shuttle past 2010. Otherwise, it will mean five years of relying on Russia to get astronauts to the international space station.

After the 2003 Columbia tragedy, President George W. Bush declared that the U.S. should head back to the moon in a new spaceship and to pay for that, the space shuttle would have to be retired.

President-elect Barack Obama has proposed delaying the shuttle's retirement. He and others have expressed concern about the gap between the shuttle's retirement and the new ship's maiden launch.

The new spaceship — a capsule called Orion sitting on top of a new rocket called Ares I — won't be ready until March 2015, according to current schedules. However, if the government spends an additional $3 billion over the next two years on the new ship, that first launch could happen a year earlier, Griffin said. He said building the rocket will cost $2.7 billion.

There are geopolitical reasons — a matter of American pride and standing in the world — for extending the shuttle's life, Griffin said. However, there are engineering reasons not to do that. Keeping the shuttle flying would divert effort away from a new ship to one that is almost 30 years old.

The choice will be up to the new president and Congress. NASA is finishing up a study on what extending the space shuttle program would entail. It should be released later this month, officials said.

Adding new shuttle flights — two a year for up to five years — means more rolls of the dice that there will be a deadly accident.

"We would have a one-in-eight chance of losing the crew in one of the 10 flights," Griffin said. He said that's based on the current risk, about 1 in 80, of a shuttle accident with each flight.

It's likely that NASA will get some additional money to shorten the gap because Obama has promised the space agency an extra $2 billion for at least one year, said Smithsonian Institution space scholar John Logsdon, who was an Obama campaign space adviser. Obama's campaign promise was for at least one additional space shuttle flight, but may stop at one, Logsdon said.

Logsdon said he would focus on the new ship instead of extending the shuttle at all.

There are three remaining shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — and nine flights scheduled through May 31, 2010.

Former NASA exploration chief Scott Horowitz said he worries that if the shuttle flies for five more years it would delay the first launch of the new spaceship. That's because crucial people and key equipment _including a rocket test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center — needed for Orion and Ares are also used for shuttle flights.

But Doug Cook, NASA's current associate administrator for exploration, said it would be tough, but "we'd find a way to do it."

Horowitz said he thinks the most logical solution would be to extend the shuttle's life by one more year and accelerate the new ship's development a year. It would cost $6 billion and shrink the gap to three years, he said.

To speed up development, Cook said, the new administration would have to commit money in the next few months, otherwise it would be too late to launch by 2014.

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