The US space shuttle fleet can carry on flying beyond NASA's 30 September deadline if the money is made available to keep it going, a US space agency official told reporters on Tuesday.
I think the actual issue that the agency and the nation has to address is the expense, said Space Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon, noting the shuttle fleet costs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $200-million per month to maintain it in working condition.
Where that money comes from is the huge question, he added.
Shannon's update was about NASA's 5 April Discovery mission to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS), one of three shuttle flights remaining before the program is shut down at the end of September after 29 years of service.
Several lawmakers have just urged the shuttle program be extended to reduce US dependency on Russia's Soyuz spacecrafts in order to continue building the ISS until the shuttle's successor can take off by 2015 at the earliest.
Taking up her colleagues' concerns, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison last week presented a bill calling for extending the shuttle program ahead of its termination deadline.
On presenting his 2011 budget plan in January, US President Barack Obama confirmed the shuttle fleet's demise this year, as well as reducing the Constellation program his predecessor George W. Bush announced in 2004 to return Americans to the moon by 2020.
Constellation included the development of the Ares 1 rocket, and its desertion has also put into question the feasibility of the shuttle's successor spacecraft.
Obama also asked NASA to partner with the private sector, using funds from an economic incentive package to develop low-cost, primary services transporting astronauts to the ISS.
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