Panel backs NASA bid for bigger shuttle budget

Tue Jul 28, 2009 10:23pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The United States needs to boost NASA's budget by $1.5 billion to fly the last seven shuttle missions and should extend International Space Station operations through 2020, members of a presidential panel reviewing the U.S. human space program said on Tuesday.

A subcommittee of the 10-member board also proposed adding an extra, eighth shuttle flight to help keep the station supplied and narrow an expected five- to seven-year gap between the time the shuttle fleet is retired and a new U.S. spaceship is ready to fly.

A third option would keep the shuttle flying through 2014 as part of a plan to develop a new launch system based on existing shuttle rockets and components.

At the very least, NASA's budget -- $18 billion in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009 -- should reflect the reality that it is highly unlikely to complete seven remaining shuttle missions by September 30, 2010, as planned, board members said.

"We have come to believe very firmly that it's important to have a realistic view of what the existing program as it will realistically unfold most likely will cost and not put any smoke and mirrors to the budget to make it look like it will fit under the budget profile," Sally Ride, a committee member and former astronaut, told her colleagues during a public meeting in Houston televised by NASA.

With NASA averaging about 115 days between shuttle missions over the past five years, the more likely time frame for completion of the space station and the retirement of the fleet is March 2011, panel members said.

"But, of course, there is no funding for that possibility," Ride said. "That's setting you up right away for a budget problem."

NASA has estimated it would need $1.5 billion to accommodate the delay. Adding an eighth flight would require an additional $2.7 billion over that.   Continued...

<p>Astronauts Tom Marshburn (L) and Christopher Cassidy (R), both STS-127 mission specialists, participate in the mission's fifth and final session of extravehicular activity in this NASA handout photo taken July 27, 2009. REUTERS/NASA/Handout</p>