A Look at the Future of the Space Shuttle

The return of Space Shuttle Discovery marks a much-needed success for NASA. The future of the shuttle fleet, however, is in question. Debris flew off the shuttle during liftoff and engineers have to figure out why before another shuttle flies.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Yesterday's return of the shuttle Discovery marks a much-needed success for NASA. The future of the shuttle fleet, however, is in question. Debris flew off the shuttle during liftoff, and engineers have to figure out why before another shuttle flies. So with five years left before its retirement, this program once again faces a moment of truth. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story about what's kept the program alive so far and where its future might lie.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

NASA has been calling Discovery's voyage a test flight. A test, at this point, is not what President Richard Nixon envisioned when he approved the shuttle program in 1972. The idea was to turn space travel into a sort of commute. It was partially pride, national and personal, that won his approval for this expensive undertaking. Space historian Roger Launius at the National Air and Space Museum has studied Nixon's decision.

Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (National Air and Space Museum): It was whispered to President Nixon that, you know, `If you don't approve this project, you're going to go down in history as the person who sent our astronaut heroes home, and you're going to say to the world that we can no longer do this really great thing that we have done. Are you willing to do that?' And he said, `Absolutely not.'

JOYCE: Backers said the shuttle would permanently propel the US ahead of its space-faring rival, the Soviet Union, and it was an early success. The shuttle ferried satellites into orbit and the Hubble Space Telescope, which another shuttle crew subsequently repaired in space. There were scientific experiments. But it soon became clear that it was cheaper to launch satellites on expendable rockets and scientists questioned the value of experiments on board the shuttle. After the 1986 Challenger accident, doubts grew. Among the doubters was Bruce Murray, professor of geology at Caltech and a founder of The Planetary Society.

Professor BRUCE MURRAY (Caltech): It was imagined that humans in lower Earth orbit were going to perform important functions. This was a stepping stone to exploration and all sorts of things. And, in fact, we're doing the same things now and the Russians were doing 30, 35 years ago, going around in low Earth orbit and not able to do much there other than study the effects of going around in low Earth orbit on humans.

JOYCE: Then the shuttle got a new reason for being, the International Space Station. Several space-faring nations agreed to establish a permanent place for humans in space. Keeping the Russian space program alive became part of the bargain. The station is now partially finished and the shuttle has been the main delivery truck. Caltech's Bruce Murray says that deal made the shuttle geopolitically essential.

Prof. MURRAY: Each administration and each new NASA administrator has inherited a set of circumstances. We have this space station up there. We have agreements for the US. The only way to access this thing is through the shuttle, therefore, we must keep the shuttle going. And the reasoning goes on and on and on, but there's nothing new.

JOYCE: At least nothing, says Murray, worth dying for. NASA officials defend the shuttle. Besides being a symbol of national pride and technological prowess, the shuttle still has missions to accomplish. One is to keep aerospace engineers employed at NASA and the aerospace companies. Another could be going into deep space. Space historian Roger Launius.

Mr. LAUNIUS: There still is this important part of space flight that is going from the ground to Earth orbit and then from there moving on to some other place. And there is a role for some sort of logistics vehicle, maybe not the shuttle, but there still has to be a way to get there.

JOYCE: Going some other place is now the stated goal of President George Bush, who's asked NASA to find out how to get astronauts back to the moon or to Mars. George Abbey is a former NASA manager who's now a senior fellow at the James Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University. He says that geopolitics of a future Mars mission has made the shuttle indispensable. You can't go to Mars without the space station to prepare for the long journey, and if the US gives up on the shuttle, you probably can't finish the space station.

Mr. GEORGE ABBEY (James Baker Institute of Public Policy, Rice University): Our international partners are concerned on our credibility in meeting our commitments. And that would give them concern and does give them concern as we look at going to the moon and Mars.

JOYCE: Engineers at NASA say they're confident they'll be able to fix the shuttle and complete the station. Under the current schedule, that'll be in 2010. But if the fix is very expensive or takes a long time, Launius says NASA will face the kind of decision that old car owners are familiar with.

Mr. LAUNIUS: There comes a point where you decide, eh, it's probably not worth putting that money into it; exactly same issue with the shuttle. Have we reached the point where it is no longer cost effective to put money into the program and to take that money and turn it around and put it into a new vehicle?

JOYCE: A replacement for the shuttle is in the works. Under current plans, the earliest it can be built is 2014. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find another perspective on NASA at npr.org. On our Web site, space historian and author Andrew Chaikin weighs in on the lessons learned from Discovery's mission and on NASA's plans to go to Mars.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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