Black hole for US spaceflight
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, June 8 (Reuters) – In three years, the United States will lose the ability to send astronauts into space, and it will have to rely on Russia to travel to the International Space Station, the head of NASA said on Friday.
The space shuttles, which debuted in 1981, will be retired in 2010 and new spacecraft will not be ready until 4-1/2 years later.
"I think personally that it is unseemly for the greatest nation in the world, today's pre-eminent space-faring nation, to be in a position where we have no other choice but to buy rides from Russia," said NASA administrator Michael Griffin in an interview with Reuters.
"I just don't think that's a good spot," added Griffin, who was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Friday's launch of the shuttle Atlantis, one of 16 flights before the shuttle program shuts down.
This mission is to install the third of four sets of solar power panels on the station in preparation for the arrival of European and Japanese laboratories later this year.
But while Russian capsules can take astronauts to the space station, US shuttles are the only space vehicles capable of delivering the larger components of the $100 billion space station, an orbital research outpost that is slightly more than halfway built and is a project of 16 nations.
The situation may be even worse than it appears for the world's sole remaining superpower. A law intended to stem weapons proliferation prohibits NASA from buying space hardware and services from Russia because of aid it is believed to have given Iran in developing missile technologies.
The US space agency got an exemption after the 2003 Columbia accident so NASA astronauts could serve on the space station while the shuttle fleet was grounded. But the exemption expires in four years.
US commercial launch services firms may come to NASA's rescue, but so far none have developed systems that can fly cargo, let alone people, to the International Space Station.
Keeping the space shuttles operating until the new spaceships are ready is not an option, said Griffin.
"We need to replace it [the shuttle], we're doing that. We are budget-limited on how rapidly we can replace it and so there will be a gap between shuttle retirement and replacement capability," said Griffin. "I regret that, but that's just the financial reality."
This year, NASA will complete purchases of the equipment needed to fly the remaining shuttle missions. Once supply lines close down, NASA will have passed the point of no return.
"We're rapidly closing in on it – by design," Griffin said. "We're trying to retire the shuttle by 2010."
Despite its upcoming space transportation woes, Griffin said NASA has no plans to abandon the station once it is finished.
"We want to see it utilized and we will utilize it. It's been declared a national laboratory and one-fourth of the laboratory capacity on it is the US lab," he said.
"When people were building the Empire State Building, the emphasis on what the individual offices that would occupy that building were going to do later was kind of minimal. The focus was on building the building because it was a hard thing to do," Griffin said.
"When we have it done, the space station is fundamentally a laboratory and a research facility and an outpost for human civilization in the most difficult arena we have yet penetrated. It's a marvelous accomplishment and we hope to learn much from it."