NASA's space station astronauts could continue hitching rides into orbit on Russian rockets even after America's space shuttles return to flight, three agency officials said.
NASA is reviewing the 24 missions on the shuttle's schedule and considering changes necessary to meet President Bush's order to finish the station and retire the shuttles by 2010, the officials told Space.com and the newspaper Florida Today.
Such a move could give NASA the option to cancel some of the eight missions in which shuttles are slated to deliver three-person crews to the station and then bring homebound tenants back to Earth. NASA officials discounted that possibility Thursday.
Shifting station crew rotation duties to Russia's Soyuz would make it easier for shuttle crews to focus on their prime tasks — constructing and supplying the space station.
The change also would free seats for shuttle astronauts needed to perform added safety tasks, such as the heat shield inspections mandated after last year's Columbia accident.
"It makes the assembly missions easier if you don't have to throw in a crew rotation on top of all the logistics of getting up there," flight crew operations director Bob Cabana told Space.com. But Cabana and other agency officials stressed no final decision has been made.
"It would be premature on my part to say 'Yes, we're going to go off and do that.' But I will tell you it's being evaluated," Cabana said.
Soyuz vs. shuttle
With the shuttles grounded for a year now, Russia's Soyuz has safely delivered two new crews to the space station and brought two more crews back to Earth.
During a private meeting in Houston last week, O'Keefe told U.S. astronauts that he is considering flying all future station crews on the Soyuz rather than shuttles. Cabana and two other NASA managers confirmed to Space.com and Florida Today that a change is under consideration.
"I think what we're looking to do is revisit the entire manifest for the space station, what assembly sequence fits best," NASA Associate Administrator William Readdy told Florida Today. "That's going to cause us to look at crew exchange, whether that takes place on the shuttle or whether that takes place as it has this past year on board the Soyuz."
Some U.S. astronauts, including current space station commander Michael Foale, say they prefer flying on the Soyuz because it has a crew escape system not present on the shuttles.
Any decision to fly more Americans on Soyuz raises political questions here and abroad.
NASA will have to negotiate with the Russians over appropriate compensation for the valuable seats on Soyuz. The cash-strapped Russian space agency has collected multimillion-dollar fares in recent years for flying other countries' astronauts and even rich tourists.
Payment method unclear
It's unclear whether Russia would donate more seats to NASA astronauts as a partner in the space station project or whether the U.S. will buy them.
Michael Kostelnik, the NASA manager in charge of the shuttle and station programs, said agency leaders have discussed proposed changes in station operations with other partner countries. He declined to discuss specifics, saying world space agency leaders will meet later this winter.
If NASA must buy Soyuz rides, the Bush administration may first have to get Congress' permission. A 2000 law bars "extraordinary payments" to Russia's space agency until the United States proves Russia has not given missile technology or weapons of mass destruction to Iran. That ban remains in effect.
Readdy did not respond when asked if NASA will ask Congress to change the law, or waive some of its restrictions, but agency officials concede that is necessary to buy Soyuz seats.
Similar to the U.S. Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s, Russia's Soyuz holds three people, the size of a normal station crew before the shuttles were grounded. NASA officials also continue to study the possibility of docking two Soyuz ships at the station at a time, which would accommodate permanent six-person crews once assembly is complete.
Jim Banke is Space.com's senior producer in the Cape Canaveral bureau. Jim Kelly writes for Florida Today. Larry Wheeler of Florida Today contributed to this report from Washington.