NASA has confirmed that the space shuttle program will keep going until next year.
The space agency made its final decision on Thursday, after weeks of indications that the program would be extended — including an official request from launch managers last week.
The managers agreed to postpone what is currently the next-to-last shuttle launch until Nov. 1. Discovery had been scheduled to fly to the International Space Station with a load of supplies in September, but NASA said more time was needed to get the payload ready.
The very last mission now has a Feb. 26, 2011, launch date. The current schedule calls for Endeavour will close out the 30-year shuttle program by delivering a major scientific instrument to the space station.
The $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer — a particle physics detector — is getting a makeover in Europe to ensure a longer working life once it's attached to the space station. The extra work repeatedly has delayed the Endeavour flight, which initially was targeted for this month and then slipped to November.
Some managers have been talking about the possibility of launching Atlantis on an extra shuttle mission next June, but NASA said no decision on that issue is expected before August. The shuttle team had hoped for an answer by now to start training a crew and preparing the payload.
Some planners have even been looking into the possibility of scheduling yet another shuttle flight in 2012.
The White House would need to sign off on any additional mission. NASA estimates it could cost as much as $200 million a month to keep the shuttle program going beyond 2010. The original plan — set forth in 2004 by President George W. Bush — was to quit flying shuttles this year.
Regardless of the outcome, the shuttle Atlantis is being prepped to be on standby for a potential rescue mission for Endeavour's crew.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its official space policy. President Barack Obama wants future exploration to be more global, with multiple countries teaming up to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and, after that, to Mars.
Obama has directed NASA to focus on those long-range goals, with private companies eventually taking over the business of getting cargo and astronauts to the space station. California-based SpaceX successfully flew its Falcon 9 test rocket last month, and Falcon rockets could begin launching cargo to the space station next year.
Until a commercial rocket is ready to start hauling passengers, American astronauts will continue to hitch rides to and from the orbiting station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Each seat costs NASA tens of millions of dollars.
Mercury astronaut John Glenn, a retired senator and one-time shuttle flier, said last week he'd rather see that money go toward keeping the shuttles flying until there's a reliable replacement.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.