Friday, July 9, 2010

The Last One? Maybe Not.


E-138, the very last external tank to be manufactured by the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, was delivered to a travel barge to begin its sea journey yesterday. Next stop: Cape Canaveral, Florida... where it will be attached to Space Shuttle Endeavour for mission STS-134 in February of 2011.

Hundreds of space program employees from both NASA and Lockheed celebrated (and there was no shortage of mourning, either) the departure of E-138, marking 37 years of Shuttle component construction. On July 14th, yet another giant celebration will greet the tank at Kennedy Space Center.

Shuttle External Tank
I keep hearing those words in my head: The last one.

Or is it? While Gizmodo appears to enjoy poking fun at the end of American manned spaceflight in their current commentary on Unemployed Astronauts, Congress may yet extend their launch assignments.

Incredibly, re-reported from the New York Times:
Senate Bill Defies Obama's NASA Plans, Restores Constellation and Adds Extra Shuttle Flight

I'd heard rumblings about this, but doubted if any piece of legislation would truly make a difference... but it seems an as-yet-unnamed Senate Committee, consisting of Republicans and Democrats alike in states with a LOT to lose from space program scale-downs, is drafting a bill to plan one more Shuttle trip in late 2011 -- and also mounts a minor rebellion against President Obama's newest space policies and plans.

The Ares heavy-launch vehicle would be reinstated as a major program, as well as the construction of Orion capsules (the long-distance design intended to exceed LEO, not the ISS escape module miniatures!). Perhaps the most startling concept in the articles was the hobbling of commercial space industry takeovers by requiring proven successes by private companies before they could be awarded space program contracts.

The New York Times referred to the bill as a "rollback" but of course money is still the huge, looming question mark. The corresponding House of Representatives committee has not yet begun work on its version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 bill, but I imagine I am only one of millions who will be watching this process very closely!