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NASA considers plan to preserve shuttle for future flights

NASA's space shuttle orbiters may not be destined for a museum in five months, after all.

Agency officials are conducting a "what-if budget exercise" that could keep the orbiters potentially flight-worthy for several more years, NASA says.

The option may offer a tantalizing alternative to the space shuttle workforce, who now must find new jobs before mid-year.

Currently, NASA plans to retire all three orbiters - including Discovery after a scheduled flight in February, Endeavour after a planned trip in April and finally Atlantis after it returns from a scheduled launch in June.

Meanwhile, NASA has asked the space industry to propose commercial vehicles to replace the shuttle orbiters, with the Russian Soyuz capsule relied upon to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station in the interim.

But NASA's study could help to keep the shuttles out of the museum - if not in space.

"We are looking at what it would cost if a recipient was not ready to take an orbiter right away, and if we wanted to keep an orbiter in long-term storage for potential engineering analysis," NASA says.

The government's long-term storage process allows aircraft to be refurbished and returned to service usually after at least 180 days.

NASA emphasises that the study to preserve the orbiter fleet remains pre-decisional, and the retirement plan remains in effect.

"Our baseline plan continues to be to process the shuttle orbiters for retirement and prepare them for display after their last flights," NASA says.

Previously, the United Space Alliance proposed a plan to commercialise the orbiter fleet, allowing NASA to fund two launches a year for $1.5 billion annually. Two of the orbiters would remain flightworthy, with the third cannibalised for spare parts.

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