WASHINGTON – The cost of continuing the life of the space shuttle past next year's planned retirement is $3 billion a year plus extending the risk of a deadly accident, NASA's chief said Thursday.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told an industry group that NASA has looked into what it would take to keep flying the aging shuttle past 2010. President George W. Bush wants to replace the shuttle with a new spaceship to go to the moon.
But that would mean five years of relying on Russia to get astronauts to the international space station, which has already cost the U.S. $15 billion.
President-elect Barack Obama has proposed delaying the shuttle's retirement. He and others have expressed concern about the gap between the shuttle's retirement and the new ship's maiden launch.
The new spaceship — a capsule called Orion sitting on top of a new rocket called Ares I — won't be ready until March 2015, according to current schedules.
However, if the government spends an additional $3 billion over the next two years on the new ship, that first launch could happen a year earlier, Griffin said.
There are geopolitical reasons — a matter of American pride and standing in the world — for extending the shuttle's life, Griffin said.
However, there are engineering reasons not to do that. Keeping the shuttle flying would divert effort away from a new ship to one that is almost 30 years old.
The choice will be up to the new president and Congress. NASA is finishing up a study on what extending the space shuttle program would entail. It should be released later this month, officials said.
Adding new shuttle flights means more rolls of the dice that there will be a deadly accident, like 2003's Columbia tragedy.
"We would have a one-in-eight chance of losing the crew in one of the 10 flights," Griffin said. He said that's based on the current risk, about 1 in 80, of a shuttle accident with each flight.