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Reuters June 26, 2006

Shuttle program's future in doubt

Space shuttle Discovery will carry more than crew and cargo for its scheduled July 1 launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The whole shuttle program's future is riding on this flight.

The stakes could scarcely be higher: if the flight proceeds with a clean, safe lift-off and a trouble-free 13 days, NASA officials have planned two more shuttle flights this year, aiming for the eventual completion of the much-delayed International Space Station and a possible fix for the aging but cherished Hubble Space Telescope.

But if Discovery is seriously damaged at launch and the shuttle crew is sent to shelter aboard the space station, NASA chief Michael Griffin has said he would consider ending the quarter-century-old shuttle program.

In that case, Griffin said on June 17, "I would be moving to shut the program down. ... I think, at that point, we're done."

That would make it virtually impossible to finish building the space station as currently designed or repair the Hubble.

It would also leave the United States with no homegrown way to get humans to space until the next generation of vehicles is ready, probably around 2011.

NASA's human space flight program has been under a cloud since the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on February 1, 2003, killing all seven aboard.

An investigation found that a chunk of foam insulation fell from the shuttle's tank during lift-off and hit the ship's left wing, opening a gash that let in super-heated gas on re-entry and ultimately ripped the craft apart.

The investigation also found a "broken safety culture" at NASA, where schedule pressures sometimes dictated the launch timetable and safety concerns were inadequately communicated to those with the power to delay a flight or fix a problem.

In the three years since then, NASA worked to change its internal culture and redesigned parts of the shuttle tank to avoid the problem of falling debris. But the fleet was grounded after last July's shuttle mission when a piece of foam dropped off Discovery during launch.

If Discovery's upcoming mission fails, it would be a low note for a program that originally aimed to make space travel commonplace, said Roger Launius, who heads the division of space history at the National Air and Space Museum.

"NASA's human space flight program has been since its beginning oriented toward prestige," Launius said by telephone.

After years as a reliable world symbol of engineering expertise and competence, Launius said, retiring the shuttle as an unsafe vehicle "would be an enormous black eye for the American people and for the nation as a whole, that we would end the activity on such a failure."

It could also have diplomatic consequences, because without the shuttles' ability to carry heavy loads into orbit, construction on the space station would be difficult if not impossible, raising questions for the international partner nations that have contributed money, time and talent.

"For Japan and Germany, (retiring the shuttles) would be very, very difficult to swallow," said Vincent Sabathier, a former representative of the French space agency, which is also a partner on the space station.

Sabathier, now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he doubted any decision would be made until after US congressional elections in November, since many lawmakers have a vested interest in keeping shuttle operations going.

At least in part, this is because the shuttle employs thousands of people at NASA centres around the United States.

Griffin has said he wants to retain this skilled workforce to start work on the shuttle's successor, known now as the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

But if the shuttle is permanently grounded, with the new vehicle still in the design phase, many of these workers will find other jobs, and some of the most experienced ones will retire.

John Pike, a longtime NASA watcher, acknowledged that stakes are high but questioned the shuttle's overall relevance.

He noted that the shuttle is not expected to be a part of US President George W Bush's ambitious plan to return Americans to the moon and eventually send them to Mars.

"NASA sort of seems like an agency where the money goes in and nothing comes out," said Pike, who runs the GlobalSecurity.org Web site.

"After their first return to flight (last July) you just wonder if these guys have lost the right stuff."


Copyright 2006, Reuters