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NASA Underfunded, Space Shuttle Missions Still Risky, Report Says

By | August 28, 2006

      By Dave Ahearn

      The U.S. space program is fraught with funding and safety questions, according to a report to Congress by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

      NASA, as it attempts to fulfill President Bush’s vision of a manned return to the moon followed by manned missions to Mars and beyond, struggles with “critical questions,” according to the report issued last week. It was authored by Carl E. Behrens, specialist in energy policy with CRS.

      First there is the problem of persistent funding shortfalls in the space agency, according to the report.

      Secondly, there is the fact that the space shuttle, the lifeline for the International Space Station (ISS), still is filled with risks in every flight, even though it is a quarter of a century since the first shuttle launch, the report states.

      Finally, there is the question of what to do with the space station after the shuttles finish carrying its components into orbit and fastening them to the ISS. The shuttles at that point, in 2010, will retire, to be replaced by the much smaller Crew Exploration Vehicle that won’t boast the giant cargo bay found on the shuttle.

      A key shuttle flight to resume the ISS construction job, carrying a giant truss into space, was the assigned mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis. (Please see story elsewhere on this page.)

      Both the House and Senate are moving legislation that would provide a bit more than $6 billion of funding for the shuttle and ISS in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007.

      The report examines key issues for Congress.

      “Adequacy of funding is the chief question raised about NASA’s activities,” the report states. Currently, in the moon-Mars expeditionary vision, Bush “did not request significantly increased money for NASA” to finance that vision, “despite chronic indications that the missions [NASA] was already charged with were underfunded,” the report observed.

      This has created a situation where some NASA programs are squeezed out financially, to free funds for the vision, the report continues.

      “NASA has responded to the new mission by cutting back funding for its other activities, primarily in scientific research and aeronautics,” the report observes.

      Another key point for lawmakers to ponder is the still-chancy nature of the shuttle program.

      True, Space Shuttle Discovery flew successfully last year, and after a brilliant July 4 launch this year, the orbiter returned from its mission to the ISS with barely any visible damage. That appeared to show success for safety moves taken after chunks of foam insulation that ripped off the external fuel tank and hit the Space Shuttle Columbia orbiter vehicle in 2003 might not occur again. The foam punched a hole in an orbiter wing. Later, as the Columbia orbiter returned toward Earth, fiery hot gases of reentry rushed into the wing, causing structural failure of the orbiter. The craft and crew were lost.

      While the Discovery flight last month may mean a safety issue has been resolved, the shuttle fleet still poses safety problems, the report continues.

      “Although Discovery’s ‘Return to Flight’ mission … was a succerss, the ability of the shuttle fleet to carry out enough flights to complete construction of the ISS by 2010 is still in question,” the report continued.

      In a way, that’s surprising, the report stated:

      “With a history of more than a hundred successful missions, it might be assumed that another 15 or so would be considered more or less routine,” the report noted. But instead, “each launch is still a major and risky event.”

      There are multiple reasons for that reality, the report states.

      “The great complexity of the vehicle and the extreme environment in which it operates require constant attention to possible accidents and malfunctions, many of which must be addressed on an ad hoc basis.”

      Finally, the ISS faces an uncertain, “unclear” future, according to the report.

      “Assuming that enough shuttle flights are made to carry out ‘core completion’ of the station by 2010, it is not clear what will be done with the ISS after that,” the report states. “In particular, there will be a gap of several years between retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and beginning of flight of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, to be designed for the return to the moon but able to serve as a vehicle to reach the ISS. The current schedule is to fly the CEV by 2012, but design of the vehicle is just beginning.”

      Two competitors vie for the CEV contract that NASA may award Thursday afternoon: Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], and a rival team of Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and The Boeing Co. [BA].

      The CRS report is entitled “The International Space Station and the Space Shuttle” and carries order code RL33568 with the date Aug. 21, 2006.

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