Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Shuttle retirement postponed ... maybe

Ed O'Keefe
The Washington Post

NASA's Congressional supporters appear to have bought some time in their efforts to ease the Space Shuttle program's hard retirement date, as the House and Senate conference agreement on the budget resolution reached this week would fund Shuttle missions beyond September 2010.

The storied Space Shuttle program is set to end at that time to make way for future missions to the Moon and Mars with the Constellation Program. There is wide concern that a hard end date could jeopardize the safety of the eight remaining Shuttle missions and the thousands of government and private-sector jobs tied to NASA. Without FY 2011 funding, NASA would be unable to continue any missions that did not launch in time. Missions regularly miss their scheduled launch dates since last-minute safety checks often reveal issues that merit a delay.

This week's agreement matches President Obama's fiscal year 2010 budget requests for NASA and then forecasts spending $2.5 billion more in FY 2011, which would allow the agency to fly any of the remaining shuttle missions beyond the current deadline.

“This budget is a significant step towards maintaining safety, minimizing the spaceflight gap, and preserving the highly skilled workforce at Kennedy Space Center and throughout Central Florida," Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) said in a statement today. "Kennedy Space Center is an economic engine for our community and I will not stand idly by while these jobs are at risk.”

Despite Kosmas' good cheer, the budget resolution merely provides a blueprint for lawmakers as the appropriations committees budget for fiscal year 2010 and beyond. While the panels generally follow the conference agreement's guidance, there's no guarantee.

Whle some wallet-watching lawmakers may be weary of extending the program, but an extension would save thousands of government jobs in Florida, Texas and elsewhere amid the economic downturn.

All of this is happening despite near-radio silence from the Obama administration on the future of NASA. The president has discussed NASA only once, during a meeting with reporters last month. Observers expect the White House to announce Obama's nominee for NASA administrator in the near future.

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