During yesterday’s Senate hearing on the impending retirement of the space shuttle, NASA administrator Mike Griffin and space subcommittee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson got into a debate regarding exactly when the space shuttle would be retired. Griffin’s opening statement stated the following: “I would like to give you an update on our plans to ensure that space transportation capabilities remain available through the completion of ISS assembly and during the ISS post-assembly period after the Space Shuttle fleet has been retired in 2010.” In his own opening statement, Nelson expressed concern that “NASA is improperly planning to retire the space shuttle on an arbitrary date in 2010, rather than completing the current manifest as required by both the President’s Vision document and the authorization act.”
Griffin, in response to a question along those lines from Nelson, said, “The President has directed that the space shuttle be retired by the end of 2010, and our budgetary planning does show that we will finish our last space shuttle flight in fiscal 2010, and at this point we have five months of margin to do that.”
“I want to challenge that,” Nelson responded. “Because I’m reading from the President’s Vision for Space Exploration, and it says, ‘Retire the space shuttle as soon as assembly of the International Space Station is completed, planned for the end of this decade.’ So where do you see that the President has ‘required’ – is the word that you used?”
“Well, I stand corrected, sir,” Griffin said.
Or was he? It’s easy to see where the confusion stems from. Nelson appeared to be quoting from this document about the Vision for Space Exploration from January 2004, which does indeed state, “Retire the Space Shuttle as soon as assembly of the International Space Station is completed, planned for the end of this decade”. However, an accompanying fact sheet states something subtly different: “The Shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the Station, and the Shuttle will be retired by the end of this decade after nearly 30 years of service.” (This comes after a passage that states that “America will complete its work on the International Space Station by 2010″, which is itself deliciously vague.)
Then there’s what President Bush himself said in his speech at NASA Headquarters on January 14, 2004. “The Shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station,” he said. “In 2010, the Space Shuttle — after nearly 30 years of duty — will be retired from service.”
Nearly a year later, the administration released a new space transportation policy that words the shuttle retirement slightly differently, and in a manner that Sen. Nelson would likely approve of: “The Space Shuttle will be returned to flight as soon as practical, based on the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board; used to complete assembly of the International Space Station, planned for the end of this decade; and then retired.” (Emphasis added.)
Despite all the word games, it seems likely that, barring an accident of some other major change in direction for the space agency, the shuttle will remain in operation until the ISS is complete—or, rather, the ISS will be declared complete when the shuttle is retired (after all, “assembly complete” for ISS has historically been a flexible target.)