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NASA’s Final Year of the Space Shuttle Program a Busy One

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA will have to nearly double its post-Columbia flight rate average if the agency hopes to complete the space shuttle's five final missions this year, a Florida Today analysis of launch data showed.

It can be done, as last year proved.

"I would tell you that the odds are high that we'll make it," said Mike Moses, NASA's shuttle launch integration manager at Kennedy Space Center. "I think we have a really good shot at it."

"I think we're ready to execute," echoed Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

Under the current plan, the first mission of the year is scheduled to blast off Feb. 7 and the final-ever shuttle mission to touch down Sept. 24, ending a program that has stretched for nearly three decades.

In 2004, the Bush administration set Sept. 30, 2010, as the deadline for completing the space station and retiring the shuttle fleet.

President Barack Obama's administration eased that deadline to the end of 2010, and both the White House and Congress have signaled support for funding the shuttle program in 2011 if need be.

The reason: Schedule pressure was cited as a contributing cause to both the 1986 Challenger disaster and the 2003 Columbia accident. So moves have been made to erase a hard deadline.

NASA nonetheless intends to launch five missions in about seven months. Gerstenmaier said NASA might spread out the schedule a bit to ease pressure.

Whether NASA meets the schedule will depend in part on:

- Mother Nature: NASA can ill-afford the type of schedule delays triggered by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated NASA's shuttle external tank factory in 2005, or the freak hailstorm that severely damaged a tank at the launch pad in 2007.

- Shuttle systems performance: Hydrogen fuel leaks grounded the shuttle for six months in 1990. Fleet-wide electrical wiring problems resulted in a five-month stand-down in 1999.

Any significant problems with critical shuttle systems could cause schedule delays.

- Limited launch windows: NASA's last five shuttle missions will have to be shoehorned into a busy space station schedule that includes four Russian Soyuz crew rotation missions.

Six Russian Progress cargo carriers are to be launched to the station in 2010 along with a European resupply ship.

Also a factor: Four periods when the sun angle on the station will be so low that the outpost could not generate enough electrical power or dispel enough heat to support a docked shuttle.

NASA is studying the possibility of carrying out shuttle missions during Soyuz crew rotation periods. That's never been done before.

As it stands, the agency faces launch "cutouts" - essentially blackout dates - during about 40 percent of the 2010 calendar year.

NASA nonetheless is hopeful that it can finish the station and retire the shuttle fleet on schedule by the end of this year.

"I think we have demonstrated in the past two or three years that we can overcome issues, that we can remove obstacles," said LeRoy Cain, NASA deputy shuttle program manager. "I have every reason to believe that we can achieve the manifest that we have laid out in front of us between now and September 2010."

The Florida Today flight rate analysis examined five distinct periods of shuttle program history, which dates back to the maiden voyage of Columbia in April 1981.

Here is what it showed:

- Pre-Challenger era: NASA launched 25 shuttle missions from 1981 through 1986, or 4.2 flights per year.

- Immediate post-Challenger era: From 1987 through 1994, NASA launched 41 shuttle missions, or 5.1 per year.

- Shuttle Mir years: NASA launched 27 missions from 1995 through 1998, or 6.8 per year.

- Early International Space Station assembly: From 1999 through 2003, NASA launched 20 missions, or four per year.

- Post-Columbia: NASA has launched just 16 shuttle missions between 2004 and the end of 2009, or 2.7 flights per year - the lowest flight rate in 28 years of shuttle fleet operations.

The most prolific launch period: 1992 through 1997. NASA launched 44 missions, or 7.3 per year.

The overall shuttle program flight rate: NASA has launched 129 missions in 29 years, or 4.4 per year.

"You know, we've been executing very well and we just need to keep that same pace up, and don't assume it's easy," said Gerstenmaier.

"As soon as we start getting complacent and we think things are going well, that's when we get in trouble."

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