Gerstenmaier: Space Station May Have To Make Do Without Spare Parts

NASA At 50 Isn’t Adrift; Rather, NASA Still Has Purpose, Relevance, Gerstenmaier Says

He Is Asked About Obama Comment

A senior NASA official last night rejected the idea that the largest space agency on Earth is adrift and lacking focus or purpose after half a century of operations, while also saying that it may be necessary to forego a planned space shuttle mission to take spare parts to the space station.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, responded at a media briefing to a question about President Obama, who last month said NASA has developed a sense of drift over the last several years. The president said it is time to pump some excitement back into the space agency, to overcome that sense of drift. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

"No," Gerstenmaier replied. "We are pretty focused on what we do. We are making very good progress," such as in developing the next-generation U.S. spaceship system under the Constellation Program, which aims to produce the Orion space capsule and Ares rocket. (But Obama is considering dumping the Ares I rocket program in favor of an existing military rocket. Please see related story in this issue.)

As an example of the importance of the space agency programs, Gerstenmaier noted that important research is being performed on the International Space Station, seeking ways to counter the danger posed by salmonella bacteria, a disease organism that causes food poisoning. (Please see full story in this issue.)

NASA also has shown it can solve difficult problems as they arise, such as the headaches with the fuel system on Space Shuttle Discovery that were resolved in time for the spacecraft to soar into the heavens last night in a spectacular show.

"I don’t consider us being adrift," Gerstenmaier said.

Obama, in a recent budget document, endorsed former President Bush’s mandate that the space shuttle fleet must retire by October next year, to free up money for that Constellation Program. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, March 2, 2009.)

That October deadline means that the eight or nine space shuttle flights remaining on the manifest must be performed without any major delays, if they all are to be completed before the shuttles are moved into museums. But that Space Shuttle Discovery launch last night came after a one-month-plus delay for safety concerns. (Please see full story in this issue.) And Space Shuttle Atlantis may launch May 12 on a mission that should have lifted off last fall to repair the Hubble Space telescope.

Gerstenmaier was asked whether there is sufficient time remaining to complete the eight remaining shuttle missions, and perhaps one additional mission to carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment to the space station before Dec. 31 next year.

However, Gerstenmaier declined to say flatly that all the missions will fly, as he has on prior occasions. Rather, he said, it may be necessary to drop a flight, such as a shuttle mission to carry a huge amount of spare parts and supplies to the station for use over many coming years. The station is to operate until at least 2015, and is expected to receive clearance to operate for many years beyond that.

"If we have to drop a flight off the end" of the manifest, that can be done, Gerstenmaier said. To be sure, he added, if the spare-parts mission were dropped, that would "leave the space station in a less-than-desired posture," lacking many desired spares.

"We’ll take each one of these flights one at a time," with due concern for any safety issues, he said. While completing the full manifest of shuttle missions "is not out of the realm of possibility," it would be foolhardy to ignore safety concerns. The space agency should "not do something dumb" and push its luck, he said.

Mike Moses, the mission management chairman for Discovery, said the station is well along toward completion.

However, only the space shuttles have the size and brawn to lift enormously heavy payloads to orbit for assembly on the space station, a capability that even the future Ares V heavy lifter rocket won’t equal.

Once shuttles cease flying, NASA won’t be able to transport a single astronaut to space in a U.S. spacecraft until 2015. Rather, the United States — the only nation that ever placed men on the moon — will have its astronauts hitch rides on Soyuz spacecraft supplied by Russia, a nation that has resumed Cold War-style bomber and submarine patrols, cut off natural gas supplies to Europe and threatened to use missile attacks to annihilate a European Missile Defense system if the United States builds it in the Czech Republic (radar) and Poland (interceptors in ground silos).

But Gerstenmaier said the United States and Russia "have a very good understanding … with each other." Without being able to ride on Soyuz vehicles, the United States would have had to abandon the $100 million International Space Station, he noted.

Further, he said, NASA also will be dependent upon commercial orbital transportation systems companies for private robotic cargo spaceships to carry supplies to the space station.

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