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Weldon Readies Bill To Cut Gap Between Shuttle, Orion-Ares Spacecraft

By | September 17, 2007

      Calling reliance on Russia to launch U.S. crews into space "very dangerous," Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.) is working on legislation that would shorten the time that astronauts would need a lift into space.

      The space shuttle will be scheduled for retirement either March 31 or Sept. 31, 2010.

      But the next vehicles to launch Americans into space — Orion and Ares — won’t be ready for manned flight until 2015.

      Meanwhile, the United States plans to rely on Russia for manned space flight for the intervening four and a half years, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin noted this week during an Aerospace Industries Association luncheon on Capitol Hill.

      As well, the United States might rely on allied nations, or on private commercial space launch services, to send astronauts into the void.

      Griffin previously has said it is "unseemly" that the United States, which put men on the moon, won’t even be able to take its astronauts into low Earth orbit for half a decade.

      The reason for the gap is that by not flying the shuttle during those years, it saves money that could be used for the Constellation Program — Orion and Ares — or other purposes. In other words, this maneuver is cheaper.

      The NASA budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, and for fiscal 2009, provides enough funding so that gap is not extended, Griffin said, adding that while he hoped Orion and Ares could be available sooner, "hope is not a management tool."

      During his talk and in questions afterward, Griffin walked a fine line between expressing support for President Bush’s budget proposal now before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and noting that Congress has the final say on how much is spent.

      The loss of U.S. supremacy in space remains a serious concern to Weldon, who noted that space shuttle suppliers already have begun to shut down.

      Weldon said he plans to offer legislation that will keep the space shuttle operating past September 2010 and bring Orion on line before 2014.

      "I plan on working that issue very aggressively in the months ahead," the lawmaker told reporters after Griffin’s speech. "It’s a real uphill climb, but I feel to just sit idly by and just allow this scenario to play out is very dangerous from a national security perspective."

      Further, many NASA officials and some members of Congress have noted that if there is a long period when NASA isn’t launching astronauts into orbit and beyond, then public interest in and support for space programs would dwindle.

      That is critical at a time when NASA and space contractors face a graying workforce, and must attract students to focus on math and sciences in order to replace that army of retiring professionals.

      Shortening the gap in launches for manned space flight would require a couple of billion dollars; closing it would run into the tens of billions, said Weldon, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which would have to approve any extra funding.

      Weldon’s state is home to the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

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