NASA officials are quietly considering keeping the three remaining space shuttles in service past their planned retirement in 2010. According to an internal email obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin asked his team to study the possibility of keeping the shuttles flying, in what is being seen as a surprising reversal. Griffin has steadfastly opposed extending the shuttle era beyond its 2010 retirement date, arguing it could kill astronauts and cripple the agency’s fledgling Constellation program, a system of new rockets and capsules meant to replace the shuttle. But geopolitics and political pressure are undermining his position [Orlando Sentinel].
Under the current official plan, NASA will not be able to send astronauts into space between the shuttles’ retirement in 2010 and the launch of the new Orion crew capsule in 2015. NASA has planned to purchase seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecrafts to send astronauts to the International Space Station during those five years, but Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia has chilled relations between Russia and the United States, and may imperil the Soyuz agreement.
The danger of relying on Russian cooperation was mentioned in a recent letter by presidential candidate John McCain (R- Ariz.) and other senators that beseeched President George W. Bush to avoid actions that would prevent NASA from being able to continue flying space shuttles beyond 2010 [SPACE.com]. Presidential candidate Barack Obama has also raised the possibility of adding shuttle flights after 2010.
However, keeping the shuttles in action past their planned retirement date would require expensive overhauls to ensure that the aging technology is still safe, and could draw money away from the new Constellation program. Griffin has repeatedly raised the issue of how much it would cost to keep the shuttle flying. Last year, he estimated it could cost $4 billion each year past 2010. “Continuing to fly the Shuttle beyond 2010 does not enhance U.S. human spaceflight capability, but rather delays the time until a new capability exists and increases the total life cycle cost to bring the new capability on line,” he told Congress in November [AP].