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Decisions imminent on US human spaceflight plans

Jonathan Amos | 13:10 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

If you've been following the long-running debate on the future of US human spaceflight, and what should replace the shuttle, then you ought to take a look at two articles just published in Florida newspapers.

Ares 1 launchThe Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today were both party to a briefing with unnamed Nasa and administration officials, and Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut and a member of the presidential panel convened to consider spaceflight options.

The Florida media are right on top of this story, as you would expect them to be.

If the space shuttle is retired later this year as planned, it is Florida which has most to lose in terms of jobs - some 7,000 all up [PDF Mb].

The message emerging from the briefing appears to be that Obama has made his mind up. He will run with the "recommendation" of his Augustine panel and contract out the launch of US astronauts to commercial operators, and he will extend space station operations to 2020.

In doing so, he will cancel the Ares rockets currently in development at Nasa - both the stick-like Ares 1 that is designed to loft a capsule, and the Ares 5 which is the heavy-lift rocket designed to get all the hardware in orbit needed for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

Augustine report coverThe papers say the president will pump something like an extra $1.3bn a year, for the next five years, into Nasa, to help seed and steer the development of the new "commercial taxi services" and invigorate the agency's technology research programme.

What's not clear is what form the "back up plan" takes.

If you remember, Augustine said that in going down a commercial launch route, Nasa should have a fall-back plan in case the new space companies failed to deliver.

The committee had the idea of accelerating the development of a heavy-lift rocket which America must have eventually anyway if it is going to go beyond LEO. There is no word on this.

Perhaps more will emerge when the president delivers his budget plans next week.

ISSFrom a European perspective, the notion that the Americans are prepared now to put pen to paper on ISS life extension will be welcomed. In conversation with European Space Agency boss, Jean-Jacques Dordain a fortnight ago, he said this was one of the big issues he wanted sorting out this year.

Europe will have committed about 10 billion euros to the space station by 2015 and it wants maximum return from the "laboratory in the sky".

Nasa's space station manager, Mike Suffredini, discussed ISS extension when shuttle managers gathered on Wednesday to approve the first orbiter launch of 2010.

He explained how the partners in the project were in the process of assessing just how long it would be possible to fly the outpost safely:

"From a structural standpoint, we have quite a bit of data on the vehicle, and we've already started the effort to look at life extension. It's the consensus of the engineers doing this work that we will be able to get to 2020 and even longer than that. We're looking at 30 years from the first launch; so from the November 1998 launch."

Decisions are pressing. Long build times mean all of the ISS partners have to start to commission the next round of cargo vehicles soon if the station is to be kept topped up with stores.

Each station crewmember needs about a tonne of supplies to sustain them for a six-month tour of duty.

Watch this space.

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