— The Ares I rocket may not fly until after 2014 (Illustration: NASA/MSFC)
NASA may not be able to launch the space shuttle's replacement by 2014 as promised, according to the agency's 2008 budget request to Congress.
This could increase the gap between the retirement of the space shuttles in 2010 and the launch of their successors, the Orion spacecraft and Ares I rocket, forcing NASA to rely on Russian Soyuz and future commercial spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
The potential delay is due to the combined effects of the higher-than-expected costs of returning the space shuttles to flight, budget cuts to the Orion and Ares programmes, and new legislation that may limit NASA's 2007 funding to that of 2006.
"I'm concerned about our ability to bring these new capabilities online by 2014," says NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. "If we do not quickly come to grips with this issue, we may have a prolonged gap between the end of the shuttle programme and the beginning of operational capability in our new systems, like that which occurred between 1975 and 1981, when we transitioned from Apollo to space shuttle." He says the gap led to the loss of engineering know-how within NASA.
The gap between the retirement of the shuttles in 2010 and the first flights of Ares and Orion which will occur no earlier than 2014 will leave NASA dependent on other nations and private companies for launches to the ISS.
Cargo will be sent to the station on Russia's current Progress ship, as well as two ships currently in development Japan's HTV and Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle.
Russia will continue to launch people to the ISS in its Soyuz rocket. But NASA is also working with two private US-based companies, Rocketplane Kistler and Space Exploration Technologies, to develop rockets capable of sending cargo and crew to the ISS. They may make their first flights to the ISS in 2010.
The possible delay of the shuttle's replacement was announced on Monday as part of US president George W Bush's budget request for Fiscal Year 2008, which begins on 1 October 2007. According to the proposal, NASA would receive $17.3 billion in 2008, an increase of 3.1% over the amount requested by the president for 2007.
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Washington DC, says the request may be unrealistic.
That is because Congress failed to pass the FY2007 budget request last year and looks likely to vote for a House plan to fund most agencies at their 2006 levels for 2007, meaning NASA would lose $545 million in expected funding for 2007 (see Budget bungle costs NASA half a billion dollars).
As a result, even though NASA highlighted the 2008 request as a 3% increase from the previous year's request, the continuing resolution funding puts the actual increase between 2007 and 2008 at closer to 6%.
"The budget itself compared to last year's president's request is a surprise," Logsdon told New Scientist. "It's more or less exactly what was planned a year ago. So it almost ignored what's happened in Congress."
NASA officials were hesitant to give numbers for how they would deal with the lower amounts if the Senate votes next week to keep the 2007 budget at 2006 levels.
But the agency's exploration systems programme, which includes the future Orion and Ares vehicles, would be particularly hard hit, losing $577 million.
"The FY2007 appropriations if enacted as the House has resolved will jeopardise our ability to transition safely and efficiently from the shuttle to the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle," Griffin says. "It will have serious effects on people, projects and programmes this year and for the longer term."
Griffin hinted that some future robotic missions planned for the Moon may have to be "curtailed" in order to make up for some of the money lost.
The 2008 budget request breaks down as follows:
$6.8 billion for space operations, which includes the space shuttle, the International Space Station and commercial crew and cargo transportation to the station
$5.5 billion for science, which includes earth science, solar physics, planetary science and astrophysics
$3.9 billion for exploration systems, which includes the Orion spacecraft, Ares I and Ares V rockets and robotic lunar missions
$554 million for aeronautics research
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