Nelson Continues to Press for One More Shuttle Mission

Nelson Continues to Press for One More Shuttle Mission

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) wrote a letter to President Obama yesterday arguing again in favor of launching the “launch on need” mission even if it isn’t needed to rescue the final space shuttle crew. Sen. Nelson and others have been pressing the case in favor of the launch for some time.

Under the current schedule, only two more shuttle launches remain: STS-133 in September and STS-134 in November, though the launch dates remain a bit iffy. NASA plans to have a shuttle on standby in case anything goes wrong with the final shuttle mission and the crew needs to be rescued. Called the “launch on need” (LON) mission, or STS-135, the idea is that if everything goes well, that shuttle would not be launched.

The question then is why not launch it anyway? The biggest issue, of course, is money. It reportedly costs $200 million a month to keep the shuttle program going. NASA already has to absorb the costs of President Obama’s decisions to build a crew rescue version of the Orion spacecraft ($5-7 billion over 5 years) and spend $40 million to help displaced space workers in Florida. NASA Administrator Bolden made it clear at yesterday’s House hearing that the agency’s budget would not be increased to accommodate those activities, so the money must come from other NASA programs.

More months of shuttle funding could further deplete those other NASA programs unless Congress appropriates additional sums. Sen. Nelson’s letter said that he plans to include language in an authorization bill to add this flight, but NASA would only get funding if it is included in an appropriations bill. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See our What’s a Markup? fact sheet.)

Another issue is what would happen if something went awry with STS-135. There would be no rescue mission for it. The answer is to launch that mission with a mininum crew complement of four. If the shuttle could not safely return to Earth, those four astronauts could remain on the International Space Station (ISS) until sufficient Russian Soyuz spacecraft could be launched to bring them home. It is not a risk-free strategy since there would be a period of time when there were too many crew members to evacuate in an emergency. Two Soyuz are typically docked at the ISS as lifeboats, each of which can carry three people and there might be 10 people aboard. Decisions would have to be made as to whether that is an acceptable risk.

Sen. Nelson’s letter identifies the reasons he finds the idea so important, revolving around the additional logistical support it would provide for the ISS and retaining jobs a bit longer. Other shuttle supporters hope that the shuttle will continue flying even past this potential final mission. Cost pressures on the federal budget make that unlikely, however.

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