Archive for Friday, March 2, 2001

NASA trims space station budget

March 2, 2001


— The people flying the space shuttle and building the new International Space Station tried to keep their chins up Thursday amid new talk that cost overruns and tight budgets will mean a smaller orbiting outpost.

After President Bush outlined his budget plans this week, Space Station Program Director Michael Hawes said NASA will downsize the station and limit the crew to three rather than seven members at least for a while.

Reports of $4 billion in cost-overruns in the next five years along with tight budget planning by the president are driving the changes.

The talk is unsettling in the neighborhood around the Johnson Space Center, where the astronauts, 3,000 government employees and 13,000 contractors operate the space shuttle and oversee space station construction.

But most of them have been through the budgeting process before and say they'll wait to see the actual numbers, and NASA officials in Washington said they didn't expect any immediate cutbacks in Houston.

"There's concern certainly, there's uncertainty about all these stories in the media," said Ron Meder, spokesman for Lockheed Martin, which runs Mission Control. "But the details of the budget aren't going to be available until April."

Most people involved have lived through federal budgeting before "and understand this is the first step in what's a very long and involved process," said Jeff Carr of USA, the company that flies the shuttle under contract with NASA.

The plan did not appear to affect the five shuttle flights scheduled to the station this year, officials said.

It seems likely, however, that the United States will stop sending new modules to the station in November 2003, three years earlier than previously planned.

The new approach calls for completing the U.S. "core configuration" with hardware already finished or nearly completed, much of it already awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Hawes said.

The limited construction plan would allow the United States to honor commitments to accommodate modules built by the Japanese and the Europeans.

But hardware that hasn't been started or isn't close to finished won't fly. That includes the U.S. living module, a U.S. propulsion module for maintaining the station in orbit or a U.S.-built seven-person emergency escape vehicle.

It also means that after the core is complete in November 2003, there will be more dependence on Russian three-person Soyuz capsules for crew escape and for propulsion to keep the station in proper orbit.

None of the space station hardware is manufactured in Houston, where the program leadership resides, astronauts train, missions are run and design work is done.

As unsettling as the news is of no full build-out, the effects aren't catastrophic, officials said.

"But this is a far cry from any kind of space station redesign," Hawes told reporters Wednesday. "In fact, it's support for flying the hardware that we have built and are testing right now."

And he said some of the components on the chopping block might be added back in later in a different form.

The news came at a time when construction of the station was ramping up after years of redesigns and delays years after President Ronald Reagan called for its construction in 1984.

A space shuttle crew last month delivered the $1.4 billion U.S.-built laboratory on the ninth successful flight since the first element finally was launched in November 1998.

Spacewalking astronauts have been able to solve several problems, including an improperly deployed solar array.

A three-man crew has been on board since last fall, and a replacement crew is scheduled to ride a shuttle to the station next week.

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