NASA astronauts at risk over Georgian conflict

NASA is examining the possibility of keep its ageing fleet of space shuttles flying for up to five years past their 2010 retirement date. NASA official, Mike Griffin, has said that the South Ossetian crisis may cut off access to Russian Soyuz rockets, lea

The plan was for Russia to step in with its Soyuz spacecraft, but analysts say Congress may not approve the deal because of Russia's response to the Georgian conflict.

“It's a very tough spot for NASA because they really are not sure which way they will go. And no one really knows until the new president comes to office,” said George T. Whitesides, Executive Director of the National Space Society.
 
Presidential candidate John McCain, an outspoken critic of Russia, has not missed the opportunity to voice his opinion on the matter. He has asked the White House not to go ahead with dismantling the shuttle programme for at least a year.

NASA is now looking to extend the shuttle programme beyond 2010, which is a potentially risky move.

“Most people acknowledge the space shuttle is an old vehicle. It's been flying since 1981 and many of its parts are getting to the point where they need to be refurbished. So, with each flight, the risks are higher,” Whitesides added.
 
NASA administrator Michael Griffin has also acknowledged the risks. Back in April he made a statement in front of a Senate panel.

“If one were to do as some have suggested and fly the shuttle for an additional five years – say for two missions a year – the risk would be about one in 12 that we could lose another crew. That's a high risk. One I would not choose to accept on behalf of our astronauts,” he said.

Flying the shuttle beyond 2010 will not only be risky but costly. Griffin has estimated the cost at $US 4 billion a year. The agency's entire annual budget is about $US 17 billion.

This means NASA will have to ask Congress for more money in order to build the Orion, its next generation spacecraft.

But whatever U.S. Congress decides, NASA is in a lose-lose situation, as it will probably have to put politics before the safety of America's astronauts or the future of its space programme.