While Discovery is being cleared for a May 31 launch, decisions are being made in Washington that will shape the future in Space. A bipartisan bill being introduced in the US Congress would direct NASA to launch one additional contingency mission in 2010 to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. AMS will seek the highest energy cosmic rays as they impact Earth's atmosphere. The experiment has 15 international partners and 1.5 billion already spent. It would be a shame to leave it in a clean room. Today the House bill was unanimously approved in committee.
Two planned contingency flights are booked with supplies that can only be delivered by Shuttle. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (Spacesuit) for instance, was designed for Shuttle and can not be carried in Orion. The newer spacecraft does not have an airlock. Once Shuttle stops flying there is no way to get any more EMU's into Space. The ISS crew must rely on the suits they have until those suits wear out.
The Constellation program depends upon Shuttle retiring on time. STS-125, the last flight of Atlantis, is scheduled for October 8. The mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope has already been delayed by the introduction of new external tanks. STS-126 is scheduled for November 10. Endeavour will serve as a backup in case the Hubble mission requires rescue. Launch pad 39B will then be converted for the first test flight of Ares 1-X in 2009. Delays in Shuttle missions would directly affect the timing.
With the second Soyuz in a row going ballistic on reentry, NASA is very nervous about relying on Russia. The hard landing sent Korea's first astronaut to the hospital with a very painful back. There will be at least 5 years between shuttle retirement and introduction of Ares. With the usual delays in government prgrams, the gap could grow longer. Some have even whispered about the US abandoning ISS.
The most lasting legacy of Michael Griffin may be the COTS program for commercial access to orbit. Elon Musk's SpaceX has targeted June for its next launch attempt. The first flight of Falcon 1 in March 2006 ended after 29 seconds. The second flight a year later failed to achieve orbit, but reached Space and most of its design goals. SpaceX has the best hope of achieving the goals of the COTS programme. They hope to begin delivering payloads to ISS in 2011. Let us wish them luck.
Much will depend on the next US President. More news from Washington soon!