Griffin confident of RTF – future less assured

by Chris Bergin

NASA administrator Mike Griffin has stated his confidence in returning the Shuttle to flight next year, despite concerns over the financial status of the agency’s budget over the coming years.

The NASA head was in Washington DC yesterday to testify in front of the House Science Committee.

At the hearing, Griffin spoke about the higher than expected costs involved with the final stage of the Shuttle program – and the drive to the opening of NASA’s next phase of operations with the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV).

Around $5 billion extra is required to conduct and conclude operations with the Shuttle on a 19 flight manifest – 18 to the ISS (International Space Station) and one mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA will have to cut projects and costs to meet the shortfall with runs through to 2010.

The victims of the shortfall are expected to come from all reaches of the NASA empire, with a large cull of ISS staff at the Kennedy Space Center already in process. The 19 flight manifest may also be reduced, as well as a potential delay in the timeline for the CEV to be constructed, tested and made operational. However, no decisions on ‘what and when’ have been made public at this time.

A note of encouragement was given on the status of the May, 2006 target launch date of Shuttle Discovery, as NASA aims to return the fleet back to full operations.

STS-121 is classed as a test flight, with the hope that lingering concerns over the External Tank (ET) foam shedding problems have finally been solved. The only problem being the status of the factory where work is carried out on the ETs – the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in Hurricane Katrina-hit New Orleans.

‘I’m confident of our technical ability to get the Shuttle to return to flight next year,’ said Griffin. ‘(But) I’m concerned of longer term consequences due to the hurricane over the next several years.’

Griffin was referring to MAF’s workforce, which was hit the hardest during Katrina’s rampage through the Gulf region of the US, by ways of housing, transportation links and personal logistics.

MAF isn’t expected to be back at full staffing until Christmas time – with two ETs (namely ET-119 and ET-120) required back at the Kennedy Space Center in good time to support STS-121. Griffin was also thinking ahead to the full flight manifest, which MAF will have to support by way of supplying enough ETs to support the launch dates NASA wishes to aim for.

‘There is a lot of uncertainty about whether or not we will have an adequate workforce to return to Michoud,’ he added. ‘NASA’s external tank production capability depends on that workforce as we still need several of those tanks to achieve NASA’s desired 19 flights, between now and the end of September 2010.’

However, a MAF source noted that Griffin’s comments appeared ‘cautious’ – especially in light of this week’s positive news on the state of operations at MAF.

‘We have multiple (over 10) ETs are various stages of production,’ he said. ‘Even with the reduced workforce we have not lost critical hardware or critical staff in areas that would compromise supporting 19 flights on the timeline currently presented.’

While the committee chairing the hearing acknowledged Griffin was making hard direction calls on behalf of the agency, he’ll need to continue in that vain by way of painful decisions. 19 flights of the Shuttle may now appear optimistic at best.

He added: ‘We are not focusing solely on the exact number of shuttle flights to achieve the goal of assembling the station and providing adequate logistics before commercial ISS cargo capabilities or the CEV come on line.’

To view links and chat about Griffin’s answers during the hearing, visit the specific thread allocated to this story:

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