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McCain: Keep Shuttle flying, don't trust Russia

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Presidential contender John McCain and two other bigshot Republican senators have written to George Bush urging that NASA keep the Space Shuttle fleet alive beyond 2010. The politicians are concerned about US reliance on Russia for manned space transport in the early years of the next decade.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Senators McCain, Hutchison (Texas) and Vitter (Louisiana) wrote to the President on Monday.

"At a minimum, we request that you direct NASA to take no action for at least one year from now that would preclude the extended use of the space shuttle beyond 2010," the three men stated.

At present, NASA's plan is that the shuttle fleet would not fly beyond 2010. From then until the arrival of new rockets and capsules under the Constellation programme - to launch at the earliest in 2014 - America would possess no ship capable of putting an astronaut into space. In particular, flights to the International Space Station (ISS) would be dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles.

With tensions high between Russia and its ISS partners regarding the recent fighting in Georgia and Russia's subsequent recognition of breakaway Georgian regions, many are reluctant to rely on Moscow for space lift. Senator McCain says he is also upset with the Russians over their sales of weapons and other technology to countries such as Iran, and argues that funding Soyuz manufacture indirectly assists ballistic-missile development by America's possible enemies.

Prospects for a non-Russian astronaut ship before Constellation seem slim. There have been proposals for Europe to build a man-rated version of its "Jules Verne" cargo module, but the ESA so far seems just as keen on a cheaper collaborative effort with Russia. Tech zillionaire Elon Musk's Falcon rocket programme is intended to offer a crewed capsule called "Dragon" in time, but at present is struggling with technical mishaps after a third consecutive launch failure for the Falcon 1. The upcoming Falcon 9 rocket - the version which could potentially carry astronauts to orbit - has yet to fly.

For its part, NASA says that the shuttles must go in order to free up cash for Constellation, and that a gap in US manned lift is inevitable without extra funds. While McCain and his Republican colleagues are happy to demand more shuttle flights, they don't specify where the money should come from. McCain's presidential rival Barack Obama has also called for at least one extra shuttle mission above current plans, but he too is loath to offer details on the needed lucre. His fellow Democrats in Congress don't seem even as convinced as he is of the need.

Any more than "one or two" extra shuttle missions, according to NASA's interpretation of the Columbia disaster investigation, would require an enormously expensive recertification of the shuttle fleet, which the space agency says would blow the Constellation budget out of the water completely.

It appears that first decisions are imminent, in any event. Every space shuttle flight requires the use of a new main fuel tank, and the huge orange tanks are made at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Michoud is currently slated to start firing workers and dismantling its unique equipment this autumn.

Read the Sentinel report here. ®

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