The retirement of the shuttle, which not long ago appeared to be a largely settled issue, seems a little less so now. Last week Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced legislation that would at least study extending the shuttle for up to five more years at up to two missions a year; companion legislation is expected to be introduced in the House this week by Reps. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) and Bill Posey (R-FL). And yesterday shuttle program manager John Shannon said the agency was studying whether such an extension was possible given the need to restart supply lines for building additional external tanks. Extending the shuttle would cost about $2.4 billion, he said. Shannon’s comments stand in contrast to what NASA deputy administrator said last week, when she said the time for extending the shuttle “had come and gone”. However, both agree that if there was a significant shuttle extension there would be a gap of two years in shuttle flights because of the need to ramp up tank production again.
In a speech on the Senate floor Monday Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) addressed a potential minor shuttle extension, among many other space policy topics. He recommended adding one additional shuttle mission, the “rescue” shuttle that would be held in reserve if there was a problem on the last currently-scheduled shuttle flight, to carry additional equipment and supplies to the International Space Station. “The risk to safety is minimal on a fifth shuttle flight,” he said. “The President should announce he is asking NASA to do that fifth flight.” Nelson didn’t address any further extension of the shuttle.
Nelson also blamed the strong negative reaction to NASA’s new plan in some quarters to poor decisions by White House advisors. “Unfortunately, some of his [President Obama's] advisers have not given him correct information about how to lay out his vision,” he said. And later: “The President let himself be misinterpreted.” In one case, planned heavy-lift launch technology and development, he specifically blamed OMB:
There came the disconnect because people who do not understand the space program were making decisions. I lay it at the feet of some of the folks in OMB, the Office of Management and Budget. If you are going to build a heavy-lift vehicle, the likelihood is you cannot do that entirely with liquid rockets; you need solid rockets to propel that massive weight up into low Earth orbit. The solid rockets are what we are testing now. Thus, the President allowed his administration to be perceived that they were killing the manned space program when, in fact, there was nothing further from what he intended.
One wonders what Wernher von Braun would have thought of the claim that you “need” solid-propellant boosters to do heavy lift.
Nelson added his space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee would hold a hearing in a couple of weeks “to look at the commercial rocket competitors and whether they need the $6 billion the President has recommended over the next 5 years in order for them to get humans to and from the International Space Station.”