NASA Delays Shuttle Endeavour’s Launch Until at Least May 2

Space Shuttle Endeavour
The rotating service structure is rolled back, unveiling the space shuttle Endeavour in the early morning hours of April 29, 2011, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which President Barack Obama was scheduled to attend this afternoon, has been delayed until at least May 2, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced.

The shuttle Endeavour’s final trip to space was postponed while engineers assess a fault with a heater in an auxiliary power unit, NASA said. A statement said the launch would occur no earlier than 2:33 p.m. local time on May 2.

The second-to-last scheduled mission in the shuttle program’s 30-year history is commanded by Navy Captain Mark Kelly, who is married to U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The Arizona Democrat is still recovering from a head wound she suffered in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 8. Giffords also was scheduled to watch the lift-off.

Obama and his family went ahead with a tour of the orbiter processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, where shuttles are maintained, after visiting tornado-ravaged neighborhoods in Alabama. The president also met privately with Giffords for about 10 minutes and spoke with Kelly, according to an administration official, before meeting with the shuttle astronauts.

The shuttle program’s demise was set in motion by President George W. Bush in 2004, and Obama’s plan to retool NASA’s mission kept the decision in effect.

The president has directed NASA to focus on developing rocket systems that may eventually take humans into deep space, while relying on private companies to build spacecraft to ferry astronauts -- and potentially tourists -- to the International Space Station.

Commercial Spaceships

On April 18, NASA announced $269 million in contracts to four companies competing to build commercial spaceships, with Chicago-based Boeing Co. receiving $92.3 million and Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nevada, winning $80 million. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in Hawthorne, California -- whose chief executive officer, Elon Musk, gave Obama a tour of his launch facility last year -- received $75 million. Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin got $22 million.

In his fiscal year 2012 budget, Obama proposed $18.7 billion for NASA, $1.5 billion less than his request last year. He also has ended NASA’s Constellation program, developed during the Bush administration, which would have built spacecraft for a return to the moon by 2020. Instead, Obama is seeking to focus NASA on exploring deep space and sending humans to Mars by the mid-2030s.

Job Losses

The end of the shuttle program will translate into thousands of lost NASA jobs in a state crucial to Obama’s re-election.

“At the Cape they stand to lose seven or eight thousand jobs in the next year because of the shuttle program ending,” said Bretton Alexander, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based trade association of companies promoting commercial human spaceflight. Obama and Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who in 1986 flew one shuttle mission as a payload specialist, “are taking a lot of heat for that, but that was going to happen no matter what,” he said.

Florida Republicans have criticized Obama’s approach.

“The president’s space policy is jeopardizing America’s longstanding commitment to manned space exploration,” Senator Marco Rubio wrote in the Orlando Sentinel on April 26. “This has serious consequences for Florida.”

Impact on Florida

The job losses in the space program will add to the woes of a state that has struggled to recover from the recession. While the Bloomberg Florida Index of stocks has gained 9.8 percent over the past year, the state’s unemployment rate is at 11.1 percent, compared with the national average of 8.8 percent.

Florida, the fourth-biggest U.S. state by population, has been a swing state in national elections and is a target for both parties in 2012.

Obama won Florida with 51 percent of the vote in 2008. Republican Bush claimed it in the two prior presidential elections, including the contested -- and pivotal -- balloting in 2000. In 2012, Florida will have added importance because population gains will add two more Electoral College votes, giving whoever wins the state 29 of the 270 votes that are required for victory in the presidential election.

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