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Politics

Making the Most of Shuttle's Farewell

Is the space agency overlooking a final, creative option?

The space shuttle program will soon roll to a final stop after 134 missions, the last one tentatively set for November. Or will it? There’s an idea afloat that could make the shuttle a permanent space station fixture.

The White House and Congress won’t go for a lengthy shuttle extension. Retirement in a matter of months looks certain, despite continued lobbying by shuttle contractors and commercial space companies, as well as work crews and space enthusiasts. They worry about leaving the U.S. dependent on Russia to put humans and large cargo into space until alternatives are developed in seven to 10 years. The final flight will mark the end of nearly 30 years of space shuttle work that produced hundreds of volumes of invaluable space science data. More than $170 billion has been spent on the program.

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The delicate and aging shuttle fleet would need many patchwork repairs to fly safely beyond this year. The shuttles were supposed to be retired three years ago and were extended to help finish the International Space Station, which was originally scheduled to be completed in 2006. The station design was pared back to smooth the way for completion. When done, it will be about two-thirds the size of its original design.

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With the end at hand, expect discussion later this year about a creative option being floated for one shuttle flight beyond the last two scheduled. It’s not being considered formally as yet, but NASA may come under pressure to keep one shuttle in service longer and in a different capacity. The idea, as suggested by some NASA scientists and others, is to commission one final flight of Atlantis, the youngest and least worn of the three remaining shuttles -- and the one now in space, launched May 14 on a 12-day mission. The idea for a final Atlantis flight, maybe at the end of the year or early next year, would be a one-way trip with the idea of permanently docking the ship at the space station orbiting 212 miles high.

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Doing so would cost comparatively little and have plenty of benefits, including almost doubling the size of the space station infrastructure. As a permanent fixture, Atlantis could be used to store cargo, conduct more experiments, provide additional room for life-support equipment, crew living space and more. It might even be used as a vehicle to lift certain experiments to higher orbits.

Some engineering work would be required to prepare Atlantis to serve indefinitely in space, but not that much and it would not be costly, space experts say.

The crew of a final Atlantis mission could return to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule at a cost of about $100 million. After the shuttle program ends, the U.S. will have to rely on the Soyuz and Russia’s large Proton rockets anyway.

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Though the plan is still unofficial, some key lawmakers who have championed the shuttles and the space station will call on NASA to consider keeping Atlantis in space permanently. One who says he is especially intrigued by the idea is Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space. “It’s a novel idea that’s got to be worth NASA considering,” he says.

Nelson, among the most influential champions of the shuttle program and of NASA funding, spent six days in space on the Columbia shuttle in 1986, two weeks before the Challenger explosion. Twenty years later, Columbia exploded while attempting to reenter the atmosphere.

In addition to supporting space station work, Nelson will lead what is likely be a successful effort to turn back a White House budget proposal to terminate the Constellation shuttle replacement program at NASA. Constellation is designed to replace the retired shuttles in about seven years and keep the U.S. manned space program alive. Nelson calls the funding, about $2 billion a year, vital to enabling the U.S. to service the space station later this decade and for other manned space projects.

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