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Reuters July 28, 2005

US shuttle woes could cloud future of space flight

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON, July 28 (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 George W. 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.


Copyright 2005, Reuters