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NASA Reported Losing $1 Billion To Pay For Columbia Recovery

By | November 19, 2007

      Cost Of Flying Orion Manned Mission Two Years Earlier $2 Billion

      A House-Senate conference committee killed a $1 billion addition to the NASA budget to help the space agency recoup its financial losses suffered in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said.

      A hearing brought forth the fact that NASA and U.S. primacy in space will be harmed, severely, simply for a lack of money.

      Hutchison, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee, said this isn’t the end of the fight for the $1 billion. The Texas senator said she, subcommittee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee will continue to seek the funding.

      Mikulski pressed successfully to have the funds inserted in the Senate version of an appropriations bill for the Commerce Department, Justice Department and other agencies, a measure that President Bush threatened to veto because it provided more funds than he wished for various programs. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Oct. 8, 2007.)

      But when the measure went to a conference committee to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the bill, the $1 billion was deleted, Hutchison said.

      The move to add $1 billion for NASA "was not successful in the conference committee," she said.

      Perhaps next year the $1 billion can be added, she said, though it might possibly have to be offset by equal budget cuts elsewhere under congressional responsible-budgeting rules prohibiting moves that increase budget deficits.

      She spoke at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on the United States, the nation that put men on the moon, withdrawing from space for half a decade. She and Nelson presented a strongly nonpartisan stance condemning the five-year gap when NASA won’t even be able to send one of its astronauts to low Earth orbit.

      NASA Administrator Michael Griffin agreed with the senators that this years-long gap is a black eye for the nation.

      "I don’t like it," Griffin said. "I think it to be unseemly in the extreme," and a bad move strategically for the United States.

      But the damage already is done, with decisions made long before Griffin took over leadership at NASA that effectively meant the first manned mission of the next-generation space craft won’t lift off until 2015, and President Bush has directed that the current space shuttle fleet must retire Sept. 30, 2010, or so Griffin said he thought.

      But Nelson said maybe the shuttle fleet doesn’t have to retire then.

      The senator, reading aloud, quoted administration language saying that the shuttle fleet must fly until the International Space Station (ISS) construction job is completed.

      "I stand corrected, sir," Griffin replied.

      At the same time, Griffin said it may not make any difference, because NASA expects to complete enough space shuttle missions from now until 2010 to finish building the ISS, saying the last shuttle flight should launch in April 2010, leaving five months of margin time before the Sept. 30 shuttle fleet retirement deadline. That five months could be used if required to meet unexpected emergencies and delays in shuttle missions, according to Griffin and Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, who also testified at the subcommittee hearing.

      But, Nelson asked, what if there are further delays that mean completing the space station would require shuttle missions lifting off later than Sept. 30, 2010? Would NASA perform those missions?

      "Yes, sir, we will finish the International Space Station," Griffin replied.

      Nelson said he wished to make a parochial observation, that after the shuttle fleet retires he understands 5,000 personnel at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be fired, a devastating economic blow to Central Florida, and would represent a huge loss to NASA of veteran, expert employees with a corresponding loss of memory of how to run the space program. "We share that concern" about the brain drain, Griffin said.

      Griffin said it is not the intent of NASA to cause economic problems, and said the number of jobs lost at KSC probably won’t be that high.

      Nelson said he is concerned that the five-year gap between the shuttle fleet retiring and Orion-Ares manned flights might well turn out to be six or seven years.

      Perhaps, Nelson said, it will be possible to persuade the next White House occupant taking office in January 2009 to shovel some more funds into NASA.

      Depending On Hostile Russia?

      While Americans are being fired, Russians will be rolling in U.S. taxpayer funds in the half-decade gap when NASA can’t even fly to low Earth orbit, Nelson said.

      NASA in those years will have to depend upon Russia, Europe, Japan and private commercial orbital transportation providers of trips to space, Griffin noted.

      Nelson excoriated the plan to depend on Russia, an increasingly belligerent nation.

      While Nelson didn’t say it, Russia has threatened to use military force to annihilate any European Ground-base Midcourse missile Defense system, which the United States proposes to install in the Czech Republic and Poland. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has made other threats against Europe and the United States over the issue.

      Nelson said U.S. leaders can’t be sure that Russia in coming years still will be willing to provide Soyuz or other spacecraft to take U.S. astronauts to the ISS.

      "I don’t think it’s a good backup plan, either," Griffin said. But that is the way it must be, because of decisions made long ago, he said.

      As well, Nelson deplored the fact that China likely will place taikonauts on the moon before U.S. astronauts arrive there at the end of the next decade.

      Griffin agreed that that is possible.

      "China will be able to put people on the moon before we can get back there," given advances in the powerful Chinese Long March 5 rocket, Griffin said.

      With that rocket, that leaves China space authorities in the position of merely having to develop a lunar orbiter-lander combination spacecraft similar to the Apollo capsule and lander that the United States used to send astronauts to the moon, Griffin said.

      Nelson responded that such a dismaying turn of events is "a Klaxon call of alarm" for the United States.

      Not only will that damage the prestige of the American space program, but Nelson also questioned what it means militarily if China holds "the high ground of the moon before we can get back there."

      That, Nelson concluded, "is not what we want."

      Hutchinson, too, deplored the outlook, saying it isn’t just the Chinese who may beat the Americans to the moon, it also may be India, Russia and more.

      Then, she said, there will be an outburst of rage, in which "people will ask why … what happened … what happened to leadership in this country, what happened to leadership in Congress, what happened to leadership in NASA."

      Hastening Orion-Ares: $2 Billion

      Hutchison and Nelson also expressed interest in possible moves to reduce the half-decade-long gap between the shuttle program ending and the first Orion-Ares manned flight in 2015.

      They were told that first liftoff could be as early as 2013 (or even earlier if a crash program were begun), but the cost of having the Constellation Program develop Orion-Ares sooner wouldn’t be cheap at $2 billion.

      Richard Gilbrech, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, provided some prices for the subcommittee.

      To have the first manned flight in 2014 instead of 2015 would mean Congress would have to provide $350 million extra to NASA in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, and $400 million extra in fiscal 2010.

      To accelerate the first manned flight to 2013 would cost $1 billion each in fiscal 2009 and 2010, Gilbrech estimated, or $2 billion total. A still-earlier date might be possible, but only with a very expensive crash program.

      Nelson had somewhat different figures for a 2013 launch, but with the same $2 billion total, citing $400 million in fiscal 2008, and $800 million each in fiscal 2009 and 2010.

      SpaceX Good Progress

      Nelson asked whether commercial space transportation providers would be able to loft large structural components for the space station into orbit after the shuttle fleet retires.

      Griffin said that might be a bit optimistic, but added that one private firm is moving ahead well in developing a viable space vehicle.

      "SpaceX shows good progress," Griffin said, and it is inevitable that other companies will step forward to enter space.

      Nelson and Hutchison asked repeatedly about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), and whether it will be able to go to the space station to perform work there.

      At present, NASA hasn’t any room on its remaining shuttle missions to transport the AMS to orbit.

      There is no cargo that can be removed from the remaining shuttle flights to make room for AMS, Gerstenmaier said. And Griffin reported that commercial space transport providers likely won’t have the capability to lift AMS to orbit.

      But if AMS can’t be transported to the space station, then it represents a huge loss of the device, which cost $1.5 billion to build, Nelson said.

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