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GAO Identifies Space Shuttle as “Urgent Issue” for Obama Administration

Richard M. Jones
Number 12 - February 5, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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One of the most pressing issues confronting the next NASA Administrator will be the planned retirement of the space shuttle. The previous administrator, Michael Griffin, who left the agency on January 20, strongly favored the retirement of the shuttle by 2010. While there has been much congressional concern about a scheduled five year gap between the shuttle’s retirement and its replacement, efforts to shorten this gap by increasing funding have been unsuccessful.

Indicative of the importance of this issue is its inclusion in a list of thirteen “Urgent Issues” that the Government Accountability Office identified, in a report released last year, as needing the prompt attention of the Obama Administration and the new Congress. In describing these issues, which include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security, and the oversight of financial institutions and markets, GAO stated:

“Many of the urgent policy concerns identified here are critical and time sensitive and require prioritized federal action. They are issues that require a focus from the transition team and new administration because if they are not dealt with, they could have great implications for life, well being, or the confidence of citizens in government, or because they have key quickly approaching dates where a decision must be made or actions taken. Consequently, these issues are not necessarily the most important issues in the long term, but rather those that must be dealt with immediately.”

The GAO states the following about the space shuttle; click here for its observations about other Urgent Issues:

“Retirement of the Space Shuttle

“A decision that must be made soon whether to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010, as currently planned, or to extend its life in view of limited options for supporting the International Space Station. Already, shuttle contracts are being phased out and shuttle facilities are being closed or transferred to contracts supporting new development efforts. A decision in favor of extending the shuttle may offer the best course for the future of the International Space Station, as (1) the recent conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia has called into question the wisdom of relying on Russian space vehicles to ferry U.S. crew and cargo to and from the station during a 5-year gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability, and (2) it still appears that other vehicles being developed to support the station - including those from commercial suppliers as well as NASA - may not be ready when anticipated. However, extending the shuttle could also have significant consequences on the future direction of human spaceflight for the United States. Specifically, NASA is counting on the retirement of the shuttle to free up resources to pursue a new generation of space flight vehicles that is anticipated to come online in 2015.

“According to NASA, reversing current plans and keeping the shuttle flying past 2010 would cost $2.5 billion to $4 billion per year. In addition, extending the shuttle will likely be costly and logistically difficult, particularly since it would require restarting production lines and possibly recertifying suppliers as well as the shuttles. On the other hand, the new administration may well decide to extend the shuttle and defer development of new transportation vehicles in light of budgetary constraints, as the new vehicles are expected to cost more than $230 billion to develop and deploy.

“What Needs to Be Done:

“The administration needs to move quickly to nominate and fill key leadership positions within NASA because the decision on whether to retire or continue operating the Space Shuttle will need to be made soon.”

“In order to preserve this investment option for the next administration, NASA needs to retain the workforce, facilities, equipment, and suppliers necessary to continue operating the Space Shuttle.”

The GAO site provides links to pertinent reports.

The FY 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, and the economic stimulus bill, may signal the direction to be taken by the Obama Administration and Congress. The first version of the Senate stimulus bill contained $500 million to shorten the five year gap. Senators want to complete work on this bill by tonight or tomorrow, so that a final version can be completed by mid-February for the President’s signature. Action on the FY 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, that was to have been ready for the President during his first week in office, has been repeatedly postponed. It now appears that the omnibus bill will not be considered until the last week in February or early in March. A much clearer indication will be found in the release of the Administration’s FY 2010 request that will occur in late March or April.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095