NASA could keep its shuttle fleet operating through 2015 and close a five-year gap in U.S. human spaceflight, but the cost would top $11 billion, an internal agency study shows.
The risk to U.S. astronaut crews would rise dramatically, and plans for lunar exploration would be severely hampered.
But the move would enable NASA to retain a critically skilled work force during the transition between the shuttle program and Project Constellation, the nation's bid to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020.
"This option eliminates the gap between shuttle and Constellation operations and allows NASA and its contractors to maintain the critical skills necessary to successfully operate future human space flight programs," NASA officials wrote in a draft of the study, a copy of which was obtained by Florida Today.
Charts in an appendix of the report show that the current shuttle work force -- which now numbers 11,900 -- would gradually decrease to 7,900 in 2015 rather than drop to zero in 2011.
NASA now is operating under a Bush Administration directive to finish the International Space Station and retire the three-orbiter shuttle fleet by the end of September 2010.
The U.S. then would rely on Russia to fly American astronauts to and from the station until Ares 1 rockets and Orion spacecraft are ready to fly in March 2015.
The Russian invasion of Georgia last August prompted President-Elect Barack Obama and Republican challenger John McCain both to question the reliance on the former Soviet Union to provide rides to and from the outpost, which cost American taxpayers an estimated $100 billion to build.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin ordered up two internal studies, both aimed at minimizing the five-year hiatus in U.S. human space flight. One examined extending shuttle fleet operations; the other is evaluating an acceleration of the Constellation project. The idea was to get the information in hand so it would be readily available to a new administration's transition team.
The shuttle extension study was carried out by officials at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Several options were considered, but two were identified as the most viable, according to an executive summary of the report.
++Option 1 added three shuttle flights to the current backlog of nine missions, extending fleet operations through 2012. Cost: roughly $5 billion.
++Option 2 added up to 13 additional flights through 2015 at a cost of $11.4 billion.
You can read more about the studies in Wednesday print editions of Florida Today.
In the meantime, you can weigh in on the issue by clicking the comment link below. We'd like to know what you think.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the image of shuttle Discovery perched on Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39A after rolling out in advance of the STS-123 mission last March. Photo credit: Florida Today, Michael R. Brown.