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NASA Awaits Two Studies Detailing How To Shrink Five-Year Travel Gap

By | November 17, 2008

      NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is awaiting two studies probing how to shrink the yawning half-decade gap when NASA won’t be able to take even one astronaut to low Earth orbit.

      That gap, as matters now stand, is to run from the 2010 retirement of the space shuttle fleet ordered by President Bush, to the first manned flight of the next-generation Orion-Ares spacecraft system in 2015.

      But President-elect Obama and the Congress to be seated in January may wish to shrink the gap, and if so, Griffin said he wants to be ready to respond to their orders.

      One study would examine accelerating the Orion-Ares development program so the first manned flight would lift off before 2015, while the other study would mull extending shuttle flights beyond the October 2010 cutoff.

      "Neither of those is free," Griffin cautioned. He declined to voice his preferences in the matter, saying that he doesn’t wish to prejudice those performing the studies. "I don’t want to get ahead of the teams I’ve asked to do the work," he explained.

      Still, he said it is clear that given more money, "I think we could pull Orion in [to a sooner first flight] and Ares in a little bit."

      "We could fly in maybe very early 2014," Griffin said. And he cautioned that the study teams may find hidden problems that foreclose any opportunity of a major acceleration in the Constellation Program developing Orion-Ares.

      One possibility would be to attempt an earlier test of the high altitude abort system for Orion.

      NASA, in the Constellation Program, is leading development of the Orion space capsule (crew exploration vehicle) by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT]. Orion and the Altair lunar lander will be boosted by the Ares rocket that will have various components developed by The Boeing Co. [BA], Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK], and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTX].

      One problem with the gap is that so long as NASA lacks the ability to transport its own astronauts to space, the United States must fork over giant amounts of cash to the Russians, who will take Americans to space on Soyuz spaceships.

      Given Russian hostility toward the United States over the planned U.S. installation of a European Missile Defense system in the Czech Republic (radar) and Poland (interceptors in ground silos), this is a difficult time for NASA.

      Adding to worries is that two consecutive Soyuz reentries were flawed, with hard landings. And the firm building the Soyuz vehicles has experienced financial difficulties.

      But Griffin said he is confident the Russians will provide needed transport services, stating that Russians so far have lived up to promises they have made.

      Another solution, perhaps, will come if private U.S. firms develop commercial orbital transport services to carry materiel to the space station, Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, noted.

      And cargo-carrying services may be available from allied nations, such as the European Space Agency Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, a Japanese robot cargo craft, and more.

      NASA is planning how best to add another space shuttle mission to the current manifest, in case Obama and Congress order and provide funding for the space agency to launch an extra shuttle flight to carry the Alphamagnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station, Gerstenmaier said.

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