Congress agreed April 29 to continue to keep the space shuttle flying until 2011. Originally the shuttle program was scheduled for a 2010 retirement, but lawmakers approved the extension along with an additional $2.5 billion in operational funding as part of the House and Senate conference agreement on the $3.4 trillion budget resolution. A final vote on the budget is still to come and the shuttle extension may or may not survive.
Former President Bush ordered the 2010 retirement of the shuttle fleet in the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia disaster. The deadline was necessary to meet the schedule of the Constellation program that aims to develop a replacement shuttle fleet and return astronauts to the moon. The first manned launch of the program is scheduled for March 2015.
NASA, meanwhile, is racing to complete its remaining nine missions. Eight of the missions are to complete construction of the International Space Station while the ninth is a scheduled May 11 launch to the Hubble Space Telescope. In the interim between the end of the shuttle program and the first launch of the Constellation program, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be used to shuttle supplies and astronauts to the Space Station.
"I am glad to see that the House and Senate budget committees heeded my call to remove the arbitrary deadline for shuttle retirement and to include critical funding for our space program," Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) said in a statement. "This budget is a significant step towards maintaining safety, minimizing the spaceflight gap and preserving the highly skilled work force at Kennedy Space Center and throughout Central Florida. Kennedy Space Center is an economic engine for our community and I will not stand idly by while these jobs are at risk."
Neither NASA nor the White House requested the one-year extension of the space shuttle program.