According to a White House staffer, a memo representing official Bush administration space policy calls for no more than 15 space shuttle flights before the fleet is retired in 2010.
The memo, promoted by Paul Shawcross, NASA's examiner at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), calls for a massive cut to the number of approved Space Shuttle missions remaining to assemble the International Space Station (ISS) The direct result could be an ISS that is smaller and less capable than is spelled out in various international agreements.
This document was originally supposed to have been part of the Administration's formal "passback" on the NASA FY 2006 budget. However, the approach spelled out in this document was rejected out of hand by (then) NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.
According to NASA, industry, and other government sources, shortly after O'Keefe's departure in February 2005 the paper's contents were being touted by Shawcross at NASA and elsewhere as now representing the "official White House position" on NASA's budget and how it was to deal with the shuttle.
Specifically, the memo says "The Administration is convinced that 28 Shuttle flights are not required to assemble a Space Station that meets the goals of the Vision and that this number of flights is not achievable by 2010. The projected increases to the Shuttle's lifetime budget could put the Vision in jeopardy ... To ensure that the Shuttle can be retired safely by the end of the decade at close to its planned lifetime budget, and without undue schedule pressure, Passback assumes that the Space Shuttle program is limited to a total of 15 additional flights to complete the assembly of the Space Station."
As of this writing, no Bush administration official, including OMB Director Josh Bolton, has made this claim in public. But sources suggest NASA and the White House are seriously considering the ideas contained in the memo Shawcross has been promoting.
The issue raises questions as to whether NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin or the OMB is in control of shaping U.S. space exploration policy. Griffin, as of late last week, reportedly denied that there were any plans to limit NASA to 15 shuttle missions - as we reported in an earlier article.
Griffin has also stated, however, that flying this number of missions (28) and still retiring the space shuttle in 2010 would not be possible. A revised mission manifest is currently under development by NASA. Griffin has stated repeatedly that retirement of the shuttle no later than 2010 would be the priority of the administration, not a full completion of the station, which had previously been the driving goal.
This schedule shows 23 projected Shuttle flights plus 3 other non-Shuttle flights required to assemble the ISS. It also has this note at the bottom: "Additional Progress, Soyuz, H-II Transfer Vehicle and Automated Transfer Vehicle flights for crew transport, logistics and resupply are not listed."
The memo expresses an urgency with regard to implementing the Shuttle fleet's retirement. The document states "As soon as possible in 2005, the Space Operations Directorate should begin to renegotiate and/or close out contracts as appropriate to maximize savings over the Shuttle's lifetime. This may involve accelerating purchases of certain components and then closing out contracts when sufficient components are in stock."
Moreover, the document is very clear that all such activities should focus around a very specific (15) number of shuttle flights. "The shuttle program should also reassess planned upgrades, facility maintenance, and return to flight activities to determine whether they are necessary to safely fly the Shuttle 15 times."
In its review of the events that led up to the Columbia accident, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board cited schedule pressure - the need to orient large programs to meet a specific milestone on a specific date - as being counter productive. Should NASA adopt the plan laid out in the memo, the risk that a similar sort of schedule pressure might well be recreated is possible. Such schedule pressure could result from the need to accomplish a large number of tasks, with a specific number of flights, and to do so by a very specific and immutable date.
According to multiple government and industry sources, Shawcross is believed to represent a group of mid-level White House staffers who shepherded Griffin through his confirmation and his early months as Administrator. This group constitutes a faction that has been hostile to the Shuttle and station's role at the center of the human spaceflight program, and have believed for years that termination of both projects were needed to reinvigorate U.S. space policy and make room for more advanced exploration missions, such as lunar bases and manned trips to Mars.
Quietly, and out of the limelight, this group has collectively played a crucial role in the drafting and implementation of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. In the process, they also repeatedly clashed with O'Keefe during his tenure, something widely known in Washington space policy circles but rarely reported in the news media.
If Griffin is correct in saying that he is unaware of a plan to limit the shuttle fleet to 15 remaining flights, then the paper may only represent the views of the OMB anti-Shuttle faction who are still trying to steer policy towards their preferences. It is also possible that Griffin may not be aware of the proposal. It is also conceivable that Griffin and the team he brought to the agency in April are keeping details of the reductions secret until the complete exploration architecture study is completed and released later this month.
As this article goes to press, no one from the White House has publicly embraced the recommendations contained within this memo. Sources inside the partnership that has maintained the International Space Station have said that while they expect a drastic cut in the final number of shuttle missions and thus the final configuration of the station, they have neither been formally briefed on such a plan nor will support abandonment of their spacecraft elements.
Currently, NASA is bound by various formal agreements to its international partners that it will fly 28 to 30 flights to the ISS to complete and outfit the orbiting base - and do so according to a specific configuration that will result in its completion.
The definition of what constitutes "completion" is also being redefined by the Griffin team, according to NASA and industry sources. The last time NASA sought to redefine the final ISS configuration a number of nations issued formal diplomatic protests. Over time objections were addressed, but a suspicion among European and Japanese leaders remain as to the strength of NASA's commitment to completing the ISS in a manner commensurate with those agreements.
While the number of shuttle flights is limited, OMB does leave the door open to alternate means where by NASA could complete the ISS. "The reduction in the number of future Shuttle flights would have a significant effect on the International Space Station's assembly sequence. NASA should plan to use the remaining Space Shuttle flights, as well as commercial and foreign services, as appropriate, to safely complete a Space Station configuration that meets the needs of the Exploration Mission Directorate and the international partners in the Space Station program", the document says.
Griffin touched on alternate ways to resupply the ISS in a June speech to the Space Transportation Association. Earlier this month, a letter from Secretary of State Rice and Griffin to the chairman of the House Science Committee asked that restrictions imposed by the Iran Nonproliferation Act be reconsidered. This could open the door to possible purchase of Soyuz and Progress flights from Russia. Over the past few years U.S. astronauts have flown aboard Soyuz spacecraft as the result of a cumbersome bartering plan between other nations and Russia.
These two efforts could possibly offer NASA alternate ways to resupply the ISS and perhaps transport its crews, but such would not address the issue of launching the component modules and the structure of the ISS itself.