Walter Cunningham on the Gap

Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham has added his voice to a growing chorus of people who want to extend space shuttle missions beyond 2010 and to provide NASA with billions in additional funding to move up the launch date of its successor.

“What we really need is a fix for the five-year hiatus, not a Band-Aid,” Cunningham writes in Launch Magazine. “That means both extending the life of the shuttle and moving the launch date for Orion forward. NASA needs a $2 billion appropriation to extend the life of the shuttle for 18 to 24 months, and an additional $2 billion to move the first flight of Orion closer by 18 to 24 months.”

Cunningham argues that a long gap between flights would erode American leadership in space, devastate the space workforce and astronaut corps, leave the United State dependent upon an increasingly authoritarian Russia, and place the fate of the International Space Station in the hands of other nations. He also called the NASA COTS program, which is designed to fund private human spacecraft alternatives, “a long shot at best” that will be prone to delays.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is staunchly opposed to extending the life of the aging shuttles on safety and cost grounds. The shuttle’s retirement will free up billions of dollars needed to get Orion and its Ares boosters flying, the administrator says.