Discovery is safe, but what next for the fleet?

The Space Shuttle Discovery lands safely at Edwards AFB, also known
as NASA’s Dryden Center, on runway 22 after taking 66 minutes to
descend 220 miles to Earth but what of the fleet’s future?

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits in the vehicle assembly building at
Kennedy Space Center, its processing for International Space Station
(ISS) supply mission STS 121 on hold. Its supposed to take place
in September but at the post-Discovery landing press conference NASA
chief Mike Griffin would not guarantee another flight this year.
Following the loss of large pieces of foam from Discovery’s external
tank shuttle programme engineers are not even confident that 2006 will
see another shuttle launch.

Interestingly at the Discovery landing press conference Griffin
talked about retirement of the fleet, which is scheduled for 2010, and
how that would be the only driver for when the shuttle flew. Before
NASA administrators always spoke of the construction of the ISS
as being the driver for the launch schedule. But after the
Columbia disaster and the loss of foam from Discovery’s ascent, the
tone and tempo of their comments has changed.

Retirement for the fleet may not mean all three remaining shuttles,
Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour being retired at the same time. There
are rumours that Discovery, now the oldest shuttle at 22 years of age,
could be retired in 2007. That would severely limit NASA’s
ability to construct the ISS. But then Griffin has already
admitted that NASA might complete the station without shuttle

Why retire shuttles early? To have the money to develop new launch
systems, based on the shuttle technology. With further work required
for resolving the foam loss problems the agency couldn’t resolve for
the past two and half years,  NASA’s request for around $200
million for “return to flight activities” for 2006 is likely to be
inadequate. This year NASA will spend over $600 million. The extra
millions next year will eat into NASA’s plans for that new launch
system, which are expected to be made public in the next two weeks. So
retiring one orbiter sounds like a good idea. But will Griffin face
opposition for this, if he were to do it? 

What can Griffin do to avoid the budget crunch everyone is
expecting, when you are trying to fly an aging shuttle fleet safer than
at any other time, trying to develop new launch systems and spacecraft
by 2010, and prepare for the return to the Moon expected by President
George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration? Does Griffin have a master
plan or is he simply hoping that force of will mean more funds from the
US Congress? 

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