NASA plans to speed up work on space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA agreed Thursday to speed up delivery of European and Japanese components to the international space station, wrapping up plans with its global partners to finish work on the orbiting space lab in 2010.

The delivery of the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory – Europe’s biggest contribution to the space station – and the Japanese Experiment Module, known as Kibo, will be bumped up by several months, if not more.

The Japanese and European agencies have been lobbying NASA to send the parts up as early as possible because NASA plans to ground its space shuttles – the chief carriers for station components – in about four years.

The partner nations also agreed to increase the number of space station crew members to six in 2009. Currently, the space station has a two-man crew, but that will grow to three, possibly as early as May when Discovery is tentatively set to launch. It would be the second shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster three years ago.

NASA has made a commitment to the space station through 2015, but will soon turn its focus to sending people to the moon and eventually to Mars. NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Thursday that the space station will be finished according to its original design from the early 1990s, despite substantially fewer planned trips, with 16 more shuttle flights.

Because of their size, the shuttles have been the delivery trucks for space station parts and supplies. Construction on the space lab has been stalled since 2003, when space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Discovery’s next flight is considered a post-disaster test mission, so actual construction on the station won’t resume until the following flight of Atlantis, which could launch by August.

“It’s the same space station,” Griffin said. “The end product is very much as we envisioned it.”

The meeting of the five space agency chiefs – U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia – over the construction of the space station came on the same day that witnesses and lawmakers offered withering criticism of NASA’s proposed 2007 budget of $16.8 billion. The request provides $3.1 billion less for science to fund a budget shortfall for the shuttle program over the next four years.

At a House Committee on Science hearing in Washington, U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the Democratic leader of the committee, called it a “humpty dumpty” budget that would hurt science research in the United States.

“Over the past two years, this administration has been unwilling to fund NASA at the levels that it said NASA would need,” Gordon said.

Witness Wes Huntress, director of the geophysical laboratory for the Carnegie Institution, noted that NASA’s plan to go back to the moon has been called “Apollo on steroids,” referring to the 1960s space program that first sent astronauts to the moon.

“Right now, given the budget they’ve got for the next five years, it seems to me it’s Apollo on food stamps,” Huntress said.

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