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Shuttle woes could cloud future of space flight

July 28, 2005

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Even as shuttle Discovery docked
smoothly on Thursday with the International Space Station,
problems that started soon after liftoff could cloud the future
of U.S. space flight.

NASA’s decision on Wednesday to keep the remaining two
shuttles on the ground while experts trouble-shoot a
potentially lethal case of falling debris might well delay the
next flight, which now has a launch window that opens Sept. 9.

If more shuttle flights are delayed, there would be less
time to try to fix the aging Hubble Space Telescope and build
the International Space Station before the shuttles’ projected
retirement in 2010.

Any delays could in turn affect the timetable for a human
mission to the Moon, part of President Bush’s ambitious “vision
for space exploration” which calls for a human lunar voyage by
2020 and an eventual trip to Mars.

The White House offered support to NASA and its chief,
Michael Griffin, when asked if Bush considered the latest
events a setback for the U.S. space agency.

“The safety of the crew is the top priority,” presidential
spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. “The president relies
on the judgment of the experts, the engineers at NASA … The
president appreciates NASA’s commitment to safety and acting
out of an abundance of caution. He is confident of the job that
administrator Griffin and the experts at NASA are doing.”

NASA experts and others have worked for 2 1/2 years to
correct problems that doomed Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003.

FALLING DEBRIS

The immediate cause of that accident was a chunk of foam
insulation that fell from the shuttle’s external tank seconds
after liftoff and gashed a hole in the left wing. The hole let
superheated gases penetrate the ship on re-entry, ultimately
tearing the shuttle apart and killing all seven crew.

Independent investigators noted the problem of falling
debris, but also cited an underlying issue of a “broken safety
culture” at NASA. The investigators offered 15 recommendations
for NASA to ensure a safe return to flight, and the agency’s
chief, Sean O’Keefe, agreed then to comply with them fully.

However, O’Keefe was replaced by Michael Griffin in April.
At his first news conference at NASA’s helm, Griffin, a rocket
scientist, said he might consider letting the shuttles fly
again, even without a complete bill of health from an
independent watchdog panel.

As it happened, Griffin agreed to go ahead with Discovery’s
launch, even though NASA had not complied fully with three
recommendations dealing with debris — including one calling on
NASA to eliminate the possibility that debris could fall from
the external tank and damage the spacecraft.

A terse statement on NASA’s Web site, www.nasa.gov, offered
Griffin’s perspective after Discovery’s launch.

“As with any unexpected occurrence, we will closely and
thoroughly evaluate this event and make any needed
modifications to the shuttle before we launch again,” the
statement from Griffin said. He went on to call this mission a
test flight to assess the effectiveness of the foam insulation
and various cameras to detect problems.

“The cameras worked well,” Griffin concluded. “The foam did
not.”

John Pike, the director of the globalsecurity.org defense
policy Web site and a longtime space watcher who was present at
the first shuttle launch in 1981, presented a gloomy picture of
the future of U.S. human space flight.

“I’m afraid that the course we’re on right now is that by
the end of the decade, we will no longer be flying the shuttle
and we will not have had enough money to build its
replacement,” Pike said in a telephone interview.




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