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The New York Times February 4, 2003

Future of the Shuttle Program Is Linked to the Space Station's


In the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, questions are being raised about the future of the space shuttle program, but there can be no satisfactory answers without considering what is to become of the International Space Station.

The two were conceived as a grand tandem act to follow the spectacular successes of the Apollo landings on the Moon in 1969 and the early 70's. The earth-orbiting station depends on the shuttle as a ferry of people and material, and in a way the shuttle depends on the station as a destination.

As Alex Roland, a Duke University historian and space policy analyst, put it, "There's not much good reason for the shuttle except to go to the space station, and not much reason for the station except to give the shuttle a place to go."

Mr. Roland conceded that he was giving a deliberately cynical spin, but other experts have come to share the opinion as the two programs evolved in recent years.

Some space scientists contend that NASA could do more exploration at lower cost and less risk to human life with unmanned robot craft like the vehicles that have explored Mars and other planets. But the space station needs its resupply trips.

As budget cuts and other problems reduced the station's science mission inch by inch, some space experts have come to view it as an employment program, first for Russian rocket scientists left jobless at the end of the cold war and second for the space shuttle itself.

But American shuttles and Russian experience in space stations helped bring the former adversaries together in a major cooperative venture, with other international partners. In the process, the shuttle and the station acquired a kind of diplomatic immunity. Today they are inseparable - "joined at the hip," as Howard E. McCurdy, a space historian, says.

In the current crisis, several analysts say, the existence of the partly completed station might ensure a future for the shuttles and, possibly, new support for an improved fleet of replacement vehicles.

"We are so far along in its development that it makes no sense to turn away from it," said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Today, though, there is reason to be glad about the partnership. Three astronauts, two Americans and a Russian, are occupying the station now. Without the Russian ties, the grounding of the shuttles might have put the astronauts at grave risk. Instead, a Russian cargo spaceship, as previously planned, is to arrive at the station today with provisions to last well into summer. If the shuttles remain grounded, a Russian escape vehicle attached to the the stations or one sent from Earth could bring the crew back.

This interdependence of the shuttle and the station was apparent from the start, in 1969, when a government task force recommended several post-Apollo program goals. Foremost were reusable space shuttles, space stations to be more or less permanently occupied and then astronaut flights to Mars. All of this, including the Mars missions, were to have happened by now, possibly as early as the 1980's.

President Richard M. Nixon, however, balked at such an expensive program, telling NASA it could choose only one. The choice of the shuttle was announced in 1971.

But Mr. McCurdy, an American University professor and the author of "The Space Station Decision," published in 1990, noted that from the beginning the shuttle was designed with an eye to its role as a ferry to a space station. The 60-foot-long cargo bay was configured to haul large components for the assembly of the station.

The space agency was authorized to take its "next logical step," building a space station, in 1983. But support was shallow. Scientists disputed NASA's claims of the station's value in most research. Few commercial applications for low-gravity technologies could be identified. Within a decade of fitful development, the American station program came within a single vote in Congress of cancellation.

Then, with the cold war over, the administration of President Bill Clinton came to the rescue by negotiating an agreement for the Russians to participate in the construction and operation of an international station. This was seen as a means of giving Russian scientists and engineers something to do, to keep them from selling their services to undesirable governments.

At the time, John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, made a prescient observation. NASA, he wrote, "was in a race against the clock" to complete the station, "or a substantial fraction thereof, prior to the next shuttle accident."

Continuing, Mr. Pike predicted that the "presence of some sort of space station in orbit would surely bolster the case for returning the shuttle to flight status after the next accident." Further, he said, the inclusion of Russians and other nations in the project would spread the costs and give the shuttles steady work in the cause of international cooperation.

Four shuttle missions this year and in early 2004 were supposed to go a long way toward completing construction of the station's core facility. But the station remained under a cloud for budget overruns and lax management, a chronic problem for more than a decade.

A study group warned NASA in November 2001 that "major changes must be made in how the International Space Station program is managed." The report called for improved management and cost reductions and said, "A clearly defined program with a credible end-state, agreed to by all stakeholders, must be developed and implemented."

By then, Mr. Roland of Duke said, the station had made enough progress and had enough partners with vested interests that "it was more difficult for Congress to cancel it."

The issue is sure to come up again as investigations move beyond the specific causes of the Columbia disaster to broader and deeper matters of how NASA is run and what are the country's goals for space exploration.

Operations on the space station may be slowed down, continued with periodic flights by Russian Soyuz spacecraft as ferries, or closed down for a few years, until the shuttles' problems are resolved.

Mr. Roland said that NASA might "simply say that we are going too fast on the station" and it is time to pause to improve the performance of the shuttles.

Copyright 2003, The New York Times