Three members of the US Senate, including Republican presidential candidate John Mccain, have asked President Bush not to take any steps that would preclude extending the shuttle’s life beyond 2010. In a letter to the president dated Monday, McCain and Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and David Vitter (R-LA) said uncertainty about US access to the station, given relations with Russia, may mean that the shuttle will be the only near-term option for getting US astronauts to and from the station. The three sounded skeptical that an extension of NASA’s existing waiver in INKSNA would be taken up this year, saying Russia’s incursion into Georgia this month “has raised new questions about the wisdom of providing that exemption.”
That potential deterioration in US-Russia relations, they argue, strikes at one of the foundations of the Vision for Space Exploration: retiring the shuttle in 2010 to free up money for the exploration initiative. “That decision certainly made sense from a fiscal point of view,” they write, “and making use of the Russian Soyuz vehicles as an expansion of the original partnership between the U.S., Russia and our other International partners was also seen to be of value.” But, they argue, “Our concern is that we do not have a guarantee that such cooperative and mutually beneficial activity will continue to be available.”
The senators state that they continue to support acceleration of Ares/Orion as well as development of commercial transportation alternatives, but that “neither of these efforts offers a clear near-term solution” for US access to the station. Thus, “we request that you direct NASA to take no action for at least one year from now that would preclude the extended use of the Space Shuttle beyond 2010. We understand that several such actions are pending in the near future, and believe that allowing them to continue would remove an option for U.S. human spaceflight capability that must not be irretrievably lost at this time.” The letter adds that similar language us contained in the Senate’s version of the NASA authorization act (S.3270), but that it may not be possible to get that bill enacted because of “the limited time available for consideration of legislation this year”.
This is the first time I’m aware of that McCain has openly suggested that the shuttle’s life be extended beyond 2010. His campaign space policy still notes that “Current U.S. space operations policy commits the U.S. to completing the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010 and then terminating the Space Shuttle flights,” although he is vague about what options he would consider to minimize the Shuttle-Constellation gap. The request to “direct NASA to take no action for at least one year” is a little odd, since there will be a new president—McCain or his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama—in less than five months. (Perhaps that’s intended to provide a little insurance during an extended transition period.) However, since Obama’s space policy supports “at least one additional Space Shuttle flight”, there appears to be a growing possibility that the shuttle may not be retired in 2010 after all.