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Congress Needs To Support NASA, Not Impede Future Plans

April 17, 2009

Congress needs to let NASA and the scientific community set the agenda.  Pull the politics out of the equation.  We need to move on past the shuttle and into the future with new and bold ideas for space exploration.

The faltering economy threatens to disrupt plans to retire the U.S. space-shuttle fleet next year and free up funds to develop a new generation of manned spacecraft.

With Florida and parts of Texas particularly hard hit by the recession, their congressional delegations are maneuvering to stave off thousands of additional layoffs there by delaying shuttle retirements.

Concerns about adding to local unemployment rolls recently prompted Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida to put language into a budget bill providing an extra $2.5 billion that could keep the shuttles flying through 2011. A House-Senate conference committee is considering the matter, even though officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are pushing to end the program a year earlier.

Instead of an arbitrary 2010 deadline, the goal should be to safely complete the remaining nine shuttle missions “and finish the international space station before shutting operations down,” said Mr. Nelson, a former astronaut who flew on the shuttle and heads a Senate Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over space exploration.

But reflecting the uphill battle facing any lengthy extension, a congressionally created panel released a report Thursday strongly endorsing NASA’s 2010 date for safety and other reasons.

The crux of the problem is that NASA can’t afford to keep the orbiter going and also accelerate work on its next family of multibillion-dollar rockets and exploration vehicles. NASA managers worry that extending the 1980s-vintage shuttles past 2010 poses significant safety problems. They also believe such a step would preclude robust funding of replacement systems, and likely end up lengthening the currently projected five-year gap between the final shuttle mission and the anticipated maiden flight of its replacement.

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