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US-Russia chill: NASA explores shuttles beyond 2010

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NEW YORK (BNS): NASA is exploring the possibility of using its space shuttle beyond their planned retirement in 2010, according to an internal email.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that NASA administrator Michael Griffin has ordered his top officials to study how the agency could fly the space shuttle beyond its planned retirement in 2010.

The move comes as concerns mount in the US about the possible inability of NASA to send astronauts to International Space Station (ISS) after 2010 up to 2015, when the next generation of capsules would be ready. After 2010, when the NASA space shuttle is retired, if US wants to send its astronauts to International Space Station it has to hire seats on Russian Soyuz shuttle, but given the worsening relations between the two countries it is looking like a remote possibility.

“The decision signals what could be a huge change in NASA policy. Griffin has steadfastly opposed extending the shuttle era beyond its 2010 retirement date, arguing it could kill astronauts and cripple the agency's fledgling Constellation program, a system of new rockets and capsules meant to replace the shuttle. But geopolitics and political pressure are undermining his position,” Sentinel reports.

Angry over Russian invasion of Georgia, several American lawmakers have been demanding that NASA be not dependent on Russia for the five-year period for manned missions to the ISS. Among others, senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, had called on White House over the past few days to stop dismantling the space shuttle programme. NASA has three shuttles in service now-- Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour.

Sentinel points out that NASA administrator Griffin had a different view in the past. He had told a Senate panel, “If one were to do as some have suggested and fly the shuttle for an additional five years -- say, two missions a year -- the risk would be about one in 12 that we would lose another crew. That's a high risk . . . [one] I would not choose to accept on behalf of our astronauts.”

“But flying two shuttle flights a year until 2015 is exactly the kind of option NASA is now looking at, according to NASA officials and the e-mail sent Wednesday by John Coggeshall, manifest and schedules manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston,” the report said.

”The [shuttle] program in conjunction with [Constellation] and [space station] have been asked by the administrator to put together some manifest options to assess extending shuttle flights to 2015,” Coggeshall wrote. “We want to focus on helping bridge the gap of U.S. vehicles traveling to the [space station] as efficiently as possible,” he added.

NASA spokesman John Yembrick described the e-mail's goals as premature because NASA has not finalized the parameters of the study, Sentinel said. “Our plan is still, of course, to retire the shuttle in 2010,” the spokesman said.

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