Endeavour sits on pad 39-A ready to launch to the international space station today, leaving only nine more scheduled flights before NASA mothballs the shuttle fleet to make way for a new generation of moon rockets.
But there is growing pressure on the agency and its chief, Michael Griffin, to keep the shuttles flying beyond their scheduled retirement in 2010. Shuttle supporters on Capitol Hill, and now a group advising President-elect Obama, are saying it should continue flying until a replacement rocket is capable of taking astronauts into space – which won't happen before 2015.
Although a draft NASA study says it is possible to keep flying the shuttle for another five years, Griffin has been outspokenly opposed – and has been ratcheting up his warnings that the shuttle is too unsafe to fly after 2010.
His critics in the space community say Griffin's real purpose is to protect the shuttle's troubled successor, the Ares I rocket.
Without the money now being spent to fly the shuttle, Griffin says, Ares could be delayed past 2015 – or killed by a new administration.
“I get concerned when people moan over the retirement of the shuttle because they are not looking at (the future of) what we have ahead of us,” Griffin told workers at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday.
However, a copy of the NASA draft study to extend the shuttle obtained by the Orlando Sentinel shows that flying the shuttle three times a year through 2015 is feasible and would cost $2.3 billion, less than the current annual budget of approximately $3.8 billion. The savings would be achieved by retiring one of the three orbiters and using it for parts, and by small cuts in the work force, the study said.
And with President-elect Obama committed to providing an extra $2 billion next year to speed the development of Ares, the arguments to keep flying the shuttle have taken on new urgency.
Kennedy Space Center is set to lose as many as 4,000 jobs when the shuttle era ends. In addition, grounding the shuttle would leave NASA reliant on Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft to get American astronauts into space.
Those were among the reasons cited by a prominent Democratic think tank – headed by John Podesta, one of the co-chairs of the Obama transition team – that released a policy paper Thursday recommending that NASA keep flying the shuttle.
“The decision to phase out the shuttle by 2010 should be reconsidered; it should be flown until a suitable replacement becomes available,” said the paper, by the Center for American Progress.
Flights aboard the aging shuttle are clearly not without risk. It lacks an abort system for the crew, and the orbiter's critical heat shield is exposed to debris on liftoff – the cause of the Columbia disaster. Challenger went down in 1986 because of a flaw in the solid rocket booster.
Some have been calling for its retirement for years.
“It is aging, it is high risk and it is operationally expensive,” said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who was a member of the panel that investigated the Columbia disaster. “It was old when we looked at it five years ago. There is, I think, significant risk if you continue to fly the shuttle for another five years.”