Bolden: STS-135 Would Be As Safe As Previous Missions, End of Shuttle Era "Bittersweet"

Bolden: STS-135 Would Be As Safe As Previous Missions, End of Shuttle Era "Bittersweet"

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) audience yesterday that the STS-135 “Launch-on-Need” shuttle mission would be as safe as previous shuttle launches. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs NASA to fly STS-135 as the final space shuttle mission as long as it is safe to do so. With the safety aspects settled, the only potential problem now is funding.

Two shuttle missions formally remain on the manifest, STS-133 (Discovery), whose launch has been delayed by a gas leak and external tank cracks, and STS-134 (Endeavour). The current launch dates for those two missions are February and April 2011, respectively.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and others champion one additional shuttle flight and included direction to fly it in the law. Dubbed the “launch on need” mission or STS-135 (Atlantis), it will be ready to launch to rescue the Endeavour crew if anything goes awry on that flight. If not, advocates argue that it should be used for one last logistics flight to the International Space Station (ISS) before the shuttle era ends.

Since there would be no capability to rescue the Atlantis crew, however, some questioned whether it would be safe to fly. NASA intends to launch it with only four crew members, instead of the usual six or seven. As long as it could get to the ISS, those four could remain there until sufficient Russian Soyuz spacecraft could be launched to bring them home again. That would mean 10 people on the ISS for a period of time instead of its usual crew complement of six, but sufficient supplies would be aboard to accommodate the extra people. According to Bolden’s remarks, the agency has determined this plan is sufficiently safe.

Estimates of the cost of flying the mission are rumored to be about $500 million, however, which was not included in the agency’s FY2011 budget request. The shuttle request for FY2011 was only $989 million, assuming that the program would end in the first quarter of the fiscal year, that is, by December 31, 2010. That clearly has not happened. As the last flights slip further into the fiscal year, more funds are needed. A full year of shuttle operations cost the agency $3.1 billion in FY2010.

NASA is currently being funded through a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2010 funding level of $18.7 billion, instead of the $19 billion requested by President Obama for FY2011. The CR expires on March 4 and it is anyone’s guess as to how much funding the agency will have after that. Where the money will come from to pay for the longer-than-expected shuttle operations is unclear.

Senator Nelson held a hearing on December 1, 2010 where Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson pledged to fly STS-135 as long as NASA received roughly the same amount of funding as the President requested for FY2011. They agreed that $18.7 billion would be enough, but warned that if the agency is cut back to its FY2008 level, the agency did not know how it would cope. NASA received $17.4 billion in FY2008. Some Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to cut all federal spending back to its FY2008 level.

Bolden’s AIAA speech also looked back at the shuttle program over its lifetime, including the many technical changes made to a vehicle that “is still … experimental … in the purest sense.” Bolden flew on the shuttle four times himself, and proudly recounted that he flew on the first space shuttle mission to Russia’s Mir space station as well as on the mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. He paid tribute to the crews of Challenger and Columbia who lost their lives, but added that “we must also never forget the accomplishments, the joy, the knowledge and the pride this program has brought our country.”

While it is “bittersweet” to see the shuttle program come to an end, Bolden said “we are thrilled to be on the cusp of a whole new era of exploration capabilities.” A “true commercial capability for reaching low Earth orbit” responds to a “yearning” for routine access to space, “one of the unfilled promises” of the shuttle program, he said.

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