Bolden: Third Shuttle Flight Would Be Safe

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

After months of relative silence, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden re-emerged this week to talk about the space agency’s future. Speaking at an AIAA conference in Orlando, Bolden discussed the upcoming space shuttle schedule and his aim to ensure that NASA’s is undertaking realistic missions in a sustainable way.

Florida Today reports that an additional shuttle mission to supplement the final two ones of the books is on the agenda, despite uncertainty in the space agency’s funding levels caused by Congress’ failure to approve the FY2011 budget:

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden today reiterated a commitment to fly a third shuttle mission this year and said the agency has determined the mission would be safe.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act requests the flight pending an assessment of its safety, which Bolden said is not yet final. Since no rescue shuttle would be available, the mission dubbed STS-135 would rely in Soyuz spacecraft to gradually return crew members from the International Space Station.

The mission would be flown in late June. However, it is unclear at this point whether delays in flying the space shuttle Discovery to the station will affect this time line.  The shuttle mission was originally scheduled for last November, but it has been delayed until at least Feb. 3. Additional repairs required for the shuttle’s external tank could push that flight back to Feb. 27 at the earliest.

An additional shuttle flight has support in Congress, which wants to continue the shuttle program as long as possible to delay painful layoffs. NASA would use the flight to provide additional supplies to the space station as a hedge against possible delays by Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX, which are set to deliver cargo on a commercial basis. The main issue is that NASA has been forced to plan the mission while operating under its 2010 budget because of delays by Congress in passing the new funding measure.

During his appearance at the AIAA conference, Bolden also discussed the need for NASA to put forth realistic plans to avoid having programs being canceled:

Future NASA space programs must be affordable, sustainable and realistic to survive political and funding dangers that have killed previous initiatives, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says.

Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ aerospace sciences meeting here, Bolden says that trying to attain affordability, sustainability and realism has become his “mantra” while negotiating with officials in the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as Congress.

Affordability “is dominant,” while sustainability is needed to survive multiple sessions of Congress and presidential administrations. “One of the best ways to help ensure that is through greater international cooperation,” he adds. The element of realism is also vital, he says. “We can’t continue to promise something that is unobtainable.”

Now, all this would seem to be fairly obvious and intuitive, although a review of NASA’s recent history shows that it is not. Good luck with that, Charlie.