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Los Angeles Times July 13, 2005

Ready for Flight, Shuttle May Be History in 5 Years

By Ralph Vartabedian and John Johnson Jr.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — As Discovery stands on the launch pad poised to take off today on the first shuttle flight since the destruction of Columbia 2 1/2 years ago, a debate is raging over how much longer America's workhorse of space can struggle on.

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin has vowed to end the star-crossed program by 2010, saying the spacecraft has labored long enough. He is setting the space agency's future on a next-generation shuttle, known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle, that won't be operational before the current fleet retires.

That plan could create a gap of several years when the U.S. would not be capable of spaceflight, while Russia and China would continue flying.

Some scientists and congressional supporters of the shuttle say pushing the craft into retirement would be an unacceptable blow to American research and prestige.

But others caution that extending the service life of the three remaining shuttles without major investments and upgrades would raise serious safety issues.

In a reminder of the fragility of the spacecraft, a temporary glitch developed late Tuesday when a plastic cover on an overhead window on the orbiter fell 60 feet and damaged several tiles on the left covering for the small engines used to maneuver the vehicle in space.

NASA crew scrambled to replace the panel attached to the damaged tiles. As of late Tuesday, officials said the problem was fixed and would not delay the launch.

The chances for launching Discovery today stood at 60% Tuesday evening, with lingering concerns about the threat of thunderstorms moving in from the Atlantic Ocean.

The favorable outlook was welcome news to shuttle supporters who hope that once the program is back on track, momentum will keep it alive.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), chairwoman of the Senate science and space subcommittee, said: "The possibility of a gap in spaceflight must be eliminated if the U.S. wants to be a leader in space exploration."

Hutchison inserted language in a bill pending in the Senate that would forbid NASA from retiring the shuttle before a replacement was completed. A spokesman for Hutchison said there was broad opposition among Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to any proposal for an early retirement of the shuttle.

"There will be enormous pressure to keep it flying," said Sheila Widnall, an aerospace professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "I would not be in favor of flying the shuttle indefinitely. But I was disappointed when NASA said they were going to retire it."

Widnall said NASA should recertify the shuttle's safety systems in 2010, a plan laid out by Columbia investigators, while it developed the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Other experts cite a host of problems with retiring the shuttle in five years. First, it would cause a major loss of prestige to the U.S. to be without manned access to space, while both Russia and China have the capability.

A long lapse in launches would erode the skilled workforce at the Kennedy Space Center, as well as other key aerospace centers across the nation. Finally, the shuttle is critical to using the full capability of the International Space Station.

"If we take the shuttle offline, the space station becomes a lot less useful," said Norman Thagard, a former astronaut and engineering professor at Florida State University. "The space shuttle and the space station go hand in hand."

NASA plans up to 28 more missions over the next five years to complete the International Space Station.

Griffin would prefer that the shuttle fly even less. Since taking over NASA in April, Griffin ordered a 60-day review of the future of the human space program. A spokesman said he was considering reducing the flights to between 16 and 24, enough to finish construction of the space station.

"I am working very hard to develop a program that replaces the shuttle with a new vehicle," Griffin said at a news conference Tuesday at Kennedy Space Center. "By the time it retires, it will have been in service for 30 years. That is enough."

Some outside experts say that the next five years of scheduled shuttle flights also pose substantial risks.

NASA has spent the last 29 months undertaking a massive effort to fix the specific problems with debris that caused the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003, but it has deferred some potentially critical safety and operational issues.

Though experts are confident that the agency has fixed the immediate problem of foam and other debris that could damage the orbiter during launch, they say the agency has not made investments needed to modernize and upgrade many other key shuttle systems.

"If we are going to fly the shuttle, we should improve it," said Richard Blomberg, former chairman of NASA's outside safety advisory panel.

In the past, NASA has foregone safety upgrades based on plans to quickly build replacement vehicles, a tendency that the panel that investigated the Columbia disaster criticized as one of the factors that had eroded safety over the years.

NASA started and then abandoned several efforts to build replacements, consuming billions of dollars.

Blomberg suggests modernizing a number of systems, including improving the main hydrogen-powered engines and designing new solid-fuel boosters that would enable the shuttle to reach orbit even if it loses some of its main engine power.

Others have suggested the shuttles need new auxiliary power units and ground launch computers at the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA is hoping to maintain an uninterrupted American presence in space by pushing up development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Griffin wants to see the craft built well before its 2014 deadline.

But some critics say such ambitious schedules are unrealistic and contradict decades of experience in how long it takes to build space vehicles. It took nine years to make the first shuttle test flight after President Nixon approved the program in 1972.

On Tuesday, NASA announced it was awarding two $28-million contracts to Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. to continue work on the new vehicle. NASA would select a single company to build the vehicle next year, rather than wait until 2008 as previously planned.

NASA recently completed a 60-day study to define the design for the new vehicle and had begun privately briefing congressional staffers, but sources said the presentations left more questions unanswered, including how the project would be funded.

The briefings lacked details on specific designs that would be needed if NASA was to meet an accelerated development schedule.

The problem with money could become even greater if NASA has to fly the shuttle while building the new vehicle. The agency needs to use the roughly $4-billion space shuttle budget to build the new vehicle, said John Pike, a space expert at GlobalSecurity.org, a research company in Alexandria, Va.

Pike thinks the shuttle should be retired because of money and safety issues.

"We have too much evidence at this point that it is going to kill a crew every 50 flights," he said. "We just can't rely on it any more."

Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, also strongly favors retiring the shuttle at the earliest date.

"It's ludicrous to say we should extend the life of the shuttle," he said. "If enough people rally their support, we can build the" Crew Exploration Vehicle in time to close the gap between the end of the shuttle program and the beginning of the next era in American space-faring history.

"Its retirement in 2010 is the only prudent thing to do."


Times staff writer Peter Pae contributed to this report.


Copyright 2005, Los Angeles Times