Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) attended Friday’s launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on what is currently scheduled to be its final mission, and made the rounds of the press site before and after liftoff. He slipped into the post-launch press conference there and, afterwards, could be seen talking with NASA officials, including shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, about prospects for adding an additional shuttle mission next year.
He then talked with reporters about that and other issues. “I keep recommending it, and I will keep asking the White House to go ahead and do that,” he said of an additional shuttle mission, which would use components planned for the “launch on need” support for the last currently scheduled mission. That launch, carrying the AMS instrument to the ISS, is now planned for late November, but Nelson said he believed that launch would slip into early 2011. That additional mission, if approved, would likely fly in mid-2011, according to NASA officials.
Turning to Congressional issues, Nelson said that his subcommittee planned to markup a NASA authorization bill by the middle of June. He said he didn’t know yet whether he would hold another hearing on the subject before the markup. Even if the authorization bill doesn’t make it through the whole Senate, he claimed, it would still provide direction to appropriators.
One key issue is likely going to be the emphasis in the administration’s plan to rely on commercial providers for crew transportation to the ISS. “You heard the skepticism among the members the other day about the commercial boys being able to man-rate their system without NASA basically having to do it for them,” he said, referring to Wednesday’s hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee. “I think, if I had to guess, I would say that you boys are going to have to show us that you can walk before you run,” he added, meaning that commercial providers first had to demonstrate the ability to transport cargo to the ISS before they could be considered for carrying astronauts.
In an earlier interview with a local television station, Nelson suggested that commercial crew funding in the budget proposal might be better used for continued testing of heavy-lift vehicles based on the Ares design. Nelson has advocated continued testing of Ares (or at least Ares-derived) vehicles as one way to mitigate job losses at the Kennedy Space Center with the shuttle’s pending retirement, as well as accelerate a 2015 deadline for a decision on a heavy-lift concept. “I think the question is out there whether or not we’re going to man-rate commercial rockets and instead use that $6 billion trying to do a shuttle-derived man-rated system such as Ares,” he told Central Florida News 13.