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Griffin, Senior Senator Debate Getting Huge Experiment Into Space

By | March 3, 2008

      The head of NASA and the senator chairing the NASA oversight panel debated at length how to get an otherwise wasted $1.5 billion experiment up to the International Space Station, during a hearing on the NASA budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009.

      While there was no immediate agreement on how to do that, what is clear is that NASA could do the job if it were given the money for an extra space shuttle mission, before the shuttle fleet retires in October 2010.

      Clearly, NASA is underfunded, and needs to have its total budget top line of $17.6 billion increased, lawmakers have said. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, and Monday, Feb. 4, 2008.)

      The discussion began with questioning by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee.

      On a general level, Griffin agreed that the budget proposal for NASA is very tight, with little margin for unexpected costs or things going awry.

      "The margins are quite small," he said. "We don’t have the reserves" to cover problems "if things go badly wrong," such as if a hurricane were to strike Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

      Such an exigency would require reprogramming money from other accounts, he said.

      Nelson asked specifically about a very expensive experiment, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which at this point is sitting on the ground with no room on planned space shuttle flights to get it to the space station before the shuttles stop flying.

      The AMS is big, 15,000 pounds, and so large that it would take up a fourth of the room in the cavernous cargo bay of a space shuttle.

      And only the shuttles have the size and power to take AMS to orbit.

      It is an experiment that would search cosmic rays for new types of matter, and has been the product of years of work by several nations and universities, all going for naught if some means can’t be found to lift it to space.

      Nelson wanted to know whether smaller payloads could be removed from shuttle flights to the space station, thereby freeing enough room for AMS. Nelson ran through a lengthy list of items that might be removed from specific shuttle missions.

      But Griffin responded that NASA experts have been through those exercises, over and over, and there just is no way to free up room for AMS without failing to haul items to orbit that the space station requires, and Griffin isn’t about to jeopardize the space station just to provide room for the AMS.

      "Sir, we looked at that over and over again," Griffin said. "I am out of options." He did, however, agree to look at the issue yet again.

      He also said he isn’t being an obstructionist here. "There seems to be a perception among your staff that I do not want to fly the AMS," Griffin told Nelson. That is wrong, the space agency head stated, adding that "I do want to fly the AMS. I would like to find an option to fly the AMS," so long as it didn’t imperil the space station.

      But actually, there is an option that Congress could provide, one that would solve the problem: increase the total NASA budget by an amount sufficient to finance an extra shuttle mission to take AMS to orbit along with other items.

      All Congress would need to do is loosen the purse strings and provide the money.

      After the hearing, Space & Missile Defense Report asked Griffin whether an additional shuttle mission could be worked in before the mandated 2010 retirement of the shuttle fleet, and what an extra mission would cost.

      "It would be notionally a few hundred million dollars for an additional shuttle launch, but I don’t want to be too precise about that," he said. But yes, it would be possible to fit in another shuttle mission, he said, noting that the current manifest of shuttle missions ends in April 2010, and the shuttle fleet retirement date isn’t until October 2010.

      "On a technical basis, could we fit in one more launch?" Griffin said. "Of course."

      To get things moving on that, however, it would be imperative to commit to that added flight by late this year or January year, he said.

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