In an interview with CNN, NASA administrator Charles Bolden suggested that NASA stretched out the shuttle program far longer than it should have. “It was time for the shuttle to go a long time ago, in deference to a vehicle that was going to take humans to the Moon,” he said, suggesting that the Challenger accident 25 years ago forced NASA “to stick with the shuttle and break off our exploration dreams for a while.” He also criticized the situation that has developed over the last several years, with a gap of several years between the impending retirement of the shuttle and a replacement system to carry US astronauts to orbit. “What is not acceptable is the fact that the most powerful nation in the world, the United States of America, finds itself in a situation that we didn’t do the proper planning to have a vehicle in place to replace shuttle when it lands its last landing in June,” he said.
(He added that we now have the opportunity “to pick up where we left off, pre-Challenger” and resume plans for human exploration beyond Earth orbit, adding that the president told NASA to put people on Mars “by 2030?. Actually, in his April 15, 2010, speech at KSC, President Obama set no specific deadline for landing humans on Mars, instead saying that by the mid-2030s humans could orbit Mars, and “a landing on Mars will follow”.)
In the near term, though, there’s the issue of flying out the remaining shuttle flights, including STS-135, the mission added in last year’s authorization bill intended in part to reduce, albeit only incrementally, the post-shuttle gap. Without a FY11 budget, though, there’s the question of whether NASA will be able to afford that additional flight. Bolden, in his CNN interview, said it likely would. “We are budgeted for 135 and unless something disastrous happens, it’s our intent to fly it,” he said. Shuttle managers are also confident the money will be there. “We have a plan in place to shuffle the money around and fund the flight, STS-135,” said shuttle launch integration Mike Moses, the Orlando Sentinel reports, adding that “we’ve gotten the letter from headquarters saying we’ll be able to fly STS-135 regardless of what happens in the next budget.”
Less confident, though, is Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), who told Houston TV station KTRK that “it’s still a fight” over whether NASA gets sufficient funding, suggesting yet again that money be taken from NASA earth sciences programs to pay for the shuttle mission, should it come to that. While the House has passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through the rest of fiscal year 2011 (cutting NASA’s budget by several hundred million dollars in the process), key senators oppose the bill, raising the odds of a government shutdown when the current CR expires at the end of next week, which could further complicate the agency’s plans.
“We’re optimistic it’s going to be there when we get there,” Chris Ferguson, commander of STS-135, told KTRK. “If it is, fantastic and if it’s not, well it’s the will of taxpayers.”