NASA faces tough decisions to plan STS-135 ahead of funding appropriation

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Despite the President signing the Bill which calls for NASA to fly STS-135, Space Shuttle Program (SSP) manager John Shannon has spoken to his teams about the battle that remains, one which requires retaining the required capability – whilst still being in the right position fiscally – to push forward with the summer 2011 mission.

STS-135:

Technically, all the major hurdles – such as the safety assessments and political support – have been successfully negotiated to the point NASA managers simply need the required funding to “pay” for the mission’s elements, ranging back to planning and training, through to the hardware and support.

The problems, however, are by no means small, such as the Shuttle Program already being deep in the midst of shutting down, with 1,500 workers losing their jobs earlier this month, and further job cuts to come.

“The morale is tough; it is a very tough environment right now, but the team is really hanging in there,” noted Mr Shannon on a recent Shuttle Standup/Integration report (L2), in reference to the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) workforce, who have already been decimated by the job losses – adding that he is very proud of that group.

The upcoming end of the Shuttle Program has been known for several years, so the emphasis continues to focus on finishing strong, rather than already grieving the loss of the program, especially with up to three flights remaining.

“The spirit of the team to finish strong, especially at KSC (Kennedy Space Center), is really amazing. Everyone (I) spoke to was very upbeat about the space program future,” added Mr Shannon. “While it is very cloudy for a lot of folks, they have faith that we are going to finish up the Shuttle Program correctly.”

As to when the program will end remains the question, despite the approval – and Monday’s signing into law by President Obama – of the Senate’s authorization bill. Mr Shannon addressed this question, after first praising the lawmakers for showing their support for the space program.

“The most important thing the passage of this bill shows is that Congress wants a space program. It is significant that they took it up on the last day, and even though they were not completely happy with everything in the Senate bill, felt it was important enough to give NASA some direction and voted on it and ended up passing it,” added Mr Shannon, before cautioning his teams over the main problem that the Program faces over the next few months.

“The problem the SSP team will face is that we do not have funding for several items called out in the authorization bill, specifically STS-135 and keeping going until the last flight in June or July 2011. We will have to make some difficult trades with no clear direction given to us.”

As part of the pre-emptive actions used to protect STS-135, STS-335′s timelines – relating to the Launch On Need (LON) support for STS-134 – were moved to align with the notional STS-135 launch date on June 28, 2011.

The STS-335 crew were also selected, and are being trained for the STS-135 mission – per Single System Trainers (SST) records at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). Options on which External Tank will fly with the final two missions were also created.

The mission has also received its first program-level mission outline, with Atlantis manifested with carrying a MPLM (Multi-Purpose Logistics Module) and LMC (Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier) on a 11+1+2 day mission. This outline should expect to undergo refinements of the mission objectives via the Program Requirements Control Board (PRCB) meetings in the next few months.

The problem SSP face is how to push forward with the mission when funding is yet to be appropriated, a process which has months to run, leaving NASA managers literally waiting for the cheque arrive in the post.

“As to when funding will be received, that will be when the appropriations bill is passed, probably several months away. The other big thing that has gotten lost in all the discussion is that Congress passed the Continuing Resolution, which is good out to December 3. That funds the government, but does not have any specific direction for NASA,” Mr Shannon continued.

“Between now and December 3, unless we get into another Continuing Resolution (which is possible), we will probably see draft appropriations language. Whether it follows what the authorization bill says or not is yet to be seen.”

Regardless, STS-135 is being classed as a priority, with NASA managers now openly saying the International Space Station (ISS) has a real need to receive Atlantis next year, whilst also adding – again contrary to the party line managers have been asked to portray at media briefings relating to the previous FY2011 budget proposal – that the ISS is going to face a very difficult post-Shuttle 2012.

“Some near-term decisions will have to be made on workforce, the plans made, contracts, etc,” Mr Shannon’s notes continued. “For the Shuttle Program and the human spaceflight part of the Agency, (Associate Administrator for Space Operations for NASA) Bill) Gerstenmaier (and myself) think that protecting STS-135 is the first priority.

“There is a real need by ISS to fly that flight, especially if the commercial programs end up slipping. Year 2012 becomes a very difficult year for ISS from a logistics standpoint to try and support all six crew and do real science and research onboard.

“While we have to keep an eye on and talk more about the ability to restart activities that are called out in the authorization bill, (our) focus will be making sure that we are in a sufficient fiscal posture to be able to fly STS-135. That puts us a little at odds between the Continuing Resolution and the authorization bill.

“The budgetary environment will not get easier, especially if there are new members of Congress that come in and are very fiscally conservative. The strategy will be to stay on our current workforce planning (do not to change anything right now).”

STS-335/135 Specific Articles: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-135/

This leaves NASA with a need to budget themselves via the Continuing Resolution, when they would prefer to be adding capability – or at least extending it to match STS-135′s summer launch target – in order to push on with planning the mission.

“There will be discussions about how folks would be brought back on to do some of the things that are laid out in the authorization bill, but no changes are anticipated in the next couple of weeks, because we need to save that money to protect the ability to fly STS-135, assuming it is approved,” added Mr Shannon.

“We have an outstanding team, and have been through these types of things before. We will have the conversations on how we can retain capability and still be in the right position fiscally to fly.”

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