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NASA sticks to 2010 shuttle retirement

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NASA is apparently sticking to its plans to retire the venerable space shuttle fleet in 2010 - despite political pressure to keep it flying, pending development of homegrown replacements to supply the International Space Station.

The US House of Representatives and Senate recently 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".

Neither NASA nor the White House requested this cash, and NASA's 2010 Budget Request Summary (pdf) sets shuttle expenditure at $3,157.1m in 2010, falling drastically to $382.8m in 2011 and a final $87.8m in 2012.

NASA says: "The President’s FY 2010 budget funds the safe flight of the Space Shuttle to complete the ISS, and then retire the Shuttle. NASA is committed to completing the nine remaining scheduled shuttle flights, which we believe can be accomplished by the end of 2010."

The final slated launch is Endeavour's mission STS-133 to the ISS scheduled for 31 May next year. The US will thereafter have to rely on Russian vehicles while its commercial cargo-lift contracts with Elon Musk's SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia and its own Constellation programme mature.

Regarding Constellation, president Barack Obama has ordered an independent review to "assess the progress we've made so far", as acting administrator Chris Scolese explained to reporters yesterday.

There's no immediate suggestion the White House is getting cold feet on the troubled programme, and the budget summary sets expenditure on Ares I and V and the Orion capsule at $3,505.4m for 2010, rising to $5,602.6m in 2014.

However, NASA notes:

In the summer of 2009 NASA will review ongoing Exploration activities as well as alternatives to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best technical solution for future human spaceflight – one that is safe, innovative, and affordable. The review will develop suitable options for U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, leading to a plan that will be presented to Congress regarding the core transportation elements and related aspects of a U.S.-led human space flight architecture that would support both crew transportation and rescue missions to the International Space Station and missions to the Moon and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

Obama's independent review will be led by former Lockheed Martin president Norman Augustine, the New Scientist notes. The probe will take around 60-90 days, during which NASA will plough ahead with Constellation. Whether the panel will consider alternatives - such as Atlas V or Delta IV rockets modified to carry passengers - remains to be seen.

NASA plans to carry out the maiden flight of the Ares I-X rocket, a scaled-down version of the Ares I, in August. The full-fat Ares I is scheduled to carry its first human passengers to the ISS March 2015. ®

NASA's main 2010 budget page is here.

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