Senate panel hits NASA over timing gap on space station

Facility could be left neglected in years between its completion and the arrival of a new exploration vehicle, lawmaker says.

NASA is spending billions to finish the International Space Station by 2010, even though the space shuttle will be phased out that year and the vehicle designed to replace it, the next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle, will not be operational until four years later.

"Do we have a techno 'Whoops?'" Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., asked NASA Administrator Michael Griffin at a Wednesday hearing.

That discrepancy between the completion date of the space station and arrival of the Crew Exploration Vehicle might mean the station would be left in the "harsh and damaging environment" of space for a long time without anyone using or tending to it, Mikulski said.

"On the face, it's correct," said Griffin, who then speculated that the station might be utilized by other countries who are partners with the United States in developing it. He also suggested commercial companies might be enticed to invest in developing private vehicles to transport cargo, and eventually people, to the space station during those four years.

To that end, Griffin said he has set aside $500 million in seed money for demonstration projects in NASA's fiscal 2007 proposed budget of $16.8 billion. Businesses would use that money to explore ways to get to the station. Some commercial proposals are in the works and he said he expects to award contracts on them this summer.

But Mikulski said Griffin's answer contained "a lot of ifs." She noted a previous NASA effort to encourage commercial interests had not worked out, and then asked Griffin whether there was a way for NASA to speed up its development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle and its accompanying Crew Launch Vehicle.

Griffin said their development could be accelerated only by devoting more money to the program, money that is not available in the current budget. He added that it is not technically possible to close the gap entirely, although more funding might narrow that gap somewhat, perhaps even to as little as a year.

"Obviously, we need more money to fund NASA," concluded Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., seconding a similar endorsement by Mikulski.

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