The end of NASA's shuttles?

February 27, 2009 5:51:01 PM PST
Thousands of Houstonians depend on NASA for a paycheck. When President Barack Obama announced his budget Thursday, NASA got hundreds of millions more dollars. However, that money may not go to the space shuttle which is set to retire next year. Houston's NASA boosters are pushing the president to change his mind and fly the shuttle longer.

We don't know much for sure about Barack Obama's space plans. Late on Inauguration Day he waved and smiled as NASA's lunar rover showed off and saluted him from the route, but NASA needs far more than a wave and a smile from the president before it is too late.

"It's a critically important time for NASA," said Sugar Land Representative Pete Olson.

Right now, NASA is developing the new vehicle expected to take U.S. astronauts back to the moon and to Mars. To achieve that, NASA had planned to shut down the space shuttle program in 2010.

That's almost 28 years after the shuttle's first flight. It would be a huge blow to Houston's space industry.

"When the shuttle stops flying we will lose half of our workforce. We will go from about 4,000 employees in Houston to about 2,000," said Dick Covey, a four-time shuttle astronaut.

Covey is the head of NASA's post-Columbia Return To Flight Task Force and current CEO of the United Space Alliance, NASA's largest contractor.

Covery is the boss for those nearly 4,000 Houston-based space employees. He is among the many NASA insiders hoping President Obama will extend the life of the shuttle.

"If they could fly the shuttle until 2013, I would be very happy with that," said Covey.

The president's budget does not include any money to fly the shuttle past 2010, but when he announced the plan, White House insiders told a Florida paper that it's possible Obama's plan could change.

It's not just about saving jobs though.

"I want to keep flying until we can start up a new vehicle," said Walt Cunningham, an Apollo 7 astronaut and longtime NASA watcher.

Cunningham is concerned that if the shuttle shuts down next year and the Orion vehicle doesn't launch until 2015, that the gap will crush NASA.

"I think it's way too long," said Cunningham.

Cunningham points out that during the gap, the U.S. would rely on sometime-ally Russia to get to the space station.

"Our perception in the world would change. We would be perceived as dependent on the Russians," said Cunningham.

Politically, that is not attractive.

"There is going to be a gap and I am going to do everything I can to minimize it," said Rep. Olson.

NASA's former administrator Mike Griffin said the risk of continuing to fly to the shuttle after 2010 is too great.

"I don't buy into that argument," said Covey.

In Houston, where thousands of people work to make the shuttle safe, that didn't fly.

"If it's unsafe to fly after 10 more flights, it would be unsafe to fly now and that's not the case," said Covey.

Cunningham agreed. "The most convenient whipping boy is safety, because we're all so risk-averse we can't take a chance," he said.

The real reason for the shuttle's end may be money. There simply isn't enough to fund shuttle and build the new vehicle without more cash for NASA.

"Putting $2 or $3 billion over five years is only $15 billion out of over $800 billion for the stimulus package this year. That seems achievable to me," said Covey.

So far, it's not in the president's package.

"It doesn't look really good for Houston," said Cunningham.

It certainly doesn't look good today to extend the life of the shuttle, but the budget isn't finalized until April. So that means between now and then, the Texas congressional delegation will be fighting hard for additional money.

- Headlines at a glance