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NASA gambles all for a shot at the moon

New Scientist

For the past three years, NASA¡¯s launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, have mostly sat idle, with technicians working to battle corrosion rather than prepare space shuttles for blast-off. And later this year, when one of the launch pads is shut down for routine maintenance, it may never return to service.

To save $30 million, NASA managers are recommending that the agency scale back to just one launch pad for the remaining shuttle flights. This is just one of the measures NASA is considering in order to realise President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration", which envisages an end to shuttle flights after September 2010 and the establishment of a base on the moon by 2020 as a stepping stone for a human mission to Mars.

On 30 December, President Bush signed into law a bill that endorses this vision for NASA.

But though Bush has said that NASA should resume shuttle flights and finish building the International Space Station (ISS) before returning astronauts to the moon, the reality for NASA's chief Michael Griffin is not that simple. He is under pressure to ensure a one-way transition from the old focus on flying space shuttles to the ISS to the new goal of building vehicles for the moon and Mars. "New programmes have very high infant mortality rates in the United States," says Howard McCurdy, a space historian and space policy expert at the American University in Washington DC. "Griffin has another two or three years to get the vision set down solidly enough that it can't be pulled out of the ground by the next administration."

What's more, Griffin has to do it with scant assurance that he will actually get the money to implement the vision; the bill that became law last month does not guarantee funds. Exactly how much NASA will get for this fiscal year will become clear in February when President Bush presents his budget to the US Congress for approval. And it is unlikely that the agency will get all it wants, given that the US is reeling from the costs of the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. "There is no pixie dust in this Congress," says McCurdy.

So, despite no guarantee of funds for the new vision, NASA is embarking on a path of no return by dismantling a programme that has been the agency's foundation for more than two decades, namely to build and permanently inhabit a microgravity research laboratory in low-Earth orbit. "We have not at this point done anything that is irreversible," said Michael Wetmore, director of shuttle processing at the Kennedy Space Center. "But as time goes by, we are not doing some things that we should be doing if we were going to fly longer than 2010."

Such no-going-back measures would include scuttling the shuttles' midlife recertification programme, designed to ensure the ships are safe to fulfil their intended design lives of 100 missions apiece. Of the remaining orbiters, Discovery has flown 30 missions, Atlantis 26 and Endeavour 19. Under the new plan, NASA will only fly the shuttle 18 times to complete the ISS and once to service the Hubble Space Telescope. But even to achieve this level of service, NASA already foresees a cash shortfall of $3 to 5 billion, primarily required to ensure the safety of the future shuttle flights.

Unless Congress ups funds dramatically for NASA, the agency will have to cut the already stripped-down shuttle programme. That would hamper the half-finished, over-budget ISS, which relies on the shuttle for assembly, service and supplies. The likely scenario is that NASA will receive a small budget increase to cover some of the shuttle's return-to-flight expenses and assist a workforce affected by the 2005 hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region. That would enable it to fly somewhere between eight and 13 more shuttle missions and at least launch vital truss and power segments to the ISS, plus various components built and owned by the station's international partners, such as a space control tower built by the European Space Agency. But missions to use the station for performing science would be cut (see "The space lab that can't do experiments").

Regardless of the problems with the shuttle and the ISS, there is another issue with Bush's vision. Despite his ambitions for humans to return to the moon and head onwards to Mars, NASA¡¯s projected budget based on current annual spending and increases of a few per cent each year will provide money for just one mission to the moon. NASA anticipates it will cost $104 billion over the next 13 years to land a crew on the moon between 2018 and 2020, and it is anybody's guess where the money for further moon landings will come from, let alone for a trip to Mars.

"In Project Apollo, the governing factor was schedule. Everything had to be bent to meet schedule," says McCurdy. "The reverse is true on the Vision for Space Exploration. Everything has to be bent to meet budget. What gives here is schedule. But that's very dangerous because if Griffin puts things off, he risks having another administration walk away from the vision." And with the shuttle poised on the brink of retirement, Bush's vision, however myopic, is all that NASA has left.


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