According to an internal email, NASA staff have been instructed to initiate a study into extending the operational lifetime of the Shuttle to bridge the 5-year gap between planned Shuttle retirement and Constellation commencement. In an apparent U-turn in the US space agency’s policy, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has ordered a feasibility study to assess whether the ageing space vehicle fleet, first launched in 1981, can operate until 2015. This news comes at a time when concern is mounting for the US dependence on the Soyuz system after 2010, especially since the recent political chill between the US and Russia…
This news may come as a surprise to many, especially since Michael Griffin’s remarks that to extend the life of the Shuttle fleet could put astronauts in danger and cripple the agency’s fledgling Constellation program. However, there has been mounting political pressure on NASA to find an alternative to depending on the Russian space agency’s Soyuz spacecraft to access the International Space Station in the five years before the brand new Constellation Program is scheduled to launch by 2015. The recent military action in the South Ossetia region of Georgia has helped to increase political tensions; this is possibly one of the main contributing factors to the initiation of this feasibility study. Both US Presidential candidates, Barack Obama (Dem) and John McCain (Rep), are also pushing for a solution to the problematic “5-year gap.”
NASA officials have confirmed the internal email’s authenticity received by the Orlando Sentinel, a Florida-based news agency, but were keen to point out that it was too soon to say what the study’s reach would be.
In the email sent out on Wednesday by John Coggeshall, manager of manifest and schedules at Johnson Space Center in Houston, he said, “We want to focus on helping bridge the gap of U.S. vehicles traveling to the ISS (International Space Station) as efficiently as possible.” However, NASA spokesman John Yembrick was keen to point out to an Associated Press journalist that although the email was sent out, it was premature and “…the parameters of the study have not yet been defined.”
Griffin has, until now, been opposed to extending the Shuttle program primarily due to financial reasons; the effort and funds required could hurt the Constellation Program. But it would seem that world events and politics could be forcing him to reconsider…
Sources: AP, Orlando Sentinel