Space shuttle may fly until 2011
Extension to avoid 'bitter pill' of paying Russians
The US House of Representatives and Senate have agreed a further $2.5bn to keep the space shuttle in service until 2011 - "if such an extension is necessary to complete currently planned missions to the International Space Station", as the Wall Street Journal puts it.
The final planned shuttle launch is Endeavour's mission STS-133 to the ISS, slated for 31 May next year. Thereafter, the US will have to rely on Russian launches pending the development of new homegrown vehicles as part of the Constellation programme  - a touchy political subject.
Last September, then presidential candidate Barack Obama said  the US must stump extra cash for the space shuttle, or swallow the "bitter pill" of paying the Russians for space transportation services.
Obama insisted this money should not be pilfered from other NASA programmes, and stated: "Any effort to extend the shuttle program must receive adequate funding, ensuring that progress on developing new vehicles is not further delayed."
Well, the House and Senate on Wednesday passed a "nonbinding $3.4 trillion budget blueprint" US budget, including the provision for further shuttle flights. Leading the campaign to reprieve the venerable space vehicle was Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the "Democratic chairman of a science subcommittee with authority over NASA programs".
Nelson argued that the money would "avoid undue reliance on Russian launches" and protect jobs attached to the shuttle program.
The budget provision was not requested either by the White House or NASA, and some agency officials have expressed concern that "funnelling extra money to the shuttles may sap momentum of work on their replacements".
It remains to be seen if the US will eventually go with the shuttle or the Russians, since the cash injection is "still subject to future House and Senate appropriations bills", the Wall Street Journal notes. ®
It will be some time before NASA has alternatives to Russian launches to the ISS. The Constellation programme is currently running behind schedule, and the first test launch of the manned Orion  capsule - designed to replace the shuttle - was last year knocked back  until 2014.
In December, NASA signed  commercial ISS cargo-lift deals with Elon Musk's SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia, both of which hoped to be able to demonstrate their capabilities by 2010 - the former by dispatching a reusable Dragon payload capsule  to the ISS and the latter with a maiden flight of its Taurus II rocket (pdf factsheet here ).
The deal was, however, stalled back in January by protests from losing bidders for the contract. There are more details here .