Space Challenges for Obama Administration

As soon as President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in next week, his Administration will have to make some quick decisions regarding the fate of the space shuttle program and its follow-on, the Constellation space-access initiative, says NASA’s outgoing head. During a Jan. 13 media roundtable sponsored by the Space Foundation in Washington, D.C., Administrator Michael Griffin said the agency needs to know by this spring whether the new Administration wants to add an extra mission to the space shuttle docket before the fleet’s planned retirement in 2010. This mission, which Congress has championed and Obama supported as a Presidential candidate, would deliver an experiment known as the alpha magnetic spectrometer to the International Space Station. Griffin said this mission would require an 18-month integration process. There is also the looming question of whether to keep the shuttle fleet flying beyond 2010 or to accelerate Constellation. One or the other would be needed to close a projected five-year gap—based on current schedules—between the shuttle’s retirement and the in-service date of Constellation’s Ares boosters and Orion crew vehicles. Either of the two options would lessen US dependence on Russia for crew transport to ISS. Griffin said NASA had just completed a study showing that it would take about $3 billion a year through 2015 to conduct just two shuttle flights annually between 2010 and 2015. NASA has briefed the Obama transition team on this, he said. The other approach, accelerating Constellation by a year or so, would require a total of about $4 billion through 2012, Griffin said. Bloomberg news wire service reported earlier this month that the incoming Administration is also considering whether to rate the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters that the Air Force uses for satellite launches for manned flight as a means to return to space more quickly. Griffin’s days with NASA are apparently numbered as Obama reportedly is eying retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Gration as Griffin’s successor.