Shuttle Problems Cloud Future of Space Program

The space shuttle Discovery landed successfully in the pre-dawn California desert Tuesday after a two-week mission to resupply the International Space Station. The mission is considered a success, but critical technical issues could ground the fleet indefinitely. Madeleine Brand talks to David Kestenbaum about the future of America's manned space program.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, red skies in Baghdad as a huge sandstorm hits the city.

But first, the space shuttle Discovery landed safely this morning at Edwards Air Force Base here in California. Discovery's successful return to Earth comes two and a half years after the space shuttle Columbia broke up reentering Earth's atmosphere. And NPR's David Kestenbaum joins us now from Florida.

And, David, not many people out here in California for the landing. I guess you have a lot of extra doughnuts and coffee to eat since the guests of honor didn't show up.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

It's still sort of a party. I mean, there was applause. You know, when the shuttle comes in, it comes in really steep. It drops 20 times faster than a commercial airplane. And Commander Eileen Collins steered it in and it rolled to a stop. And, you know, when you look at this thing--and it had been moving at 25 times the speed of sound just an hour before, and when it lands, it's really, really hot and it may be giving off these gases. So the crew has to actually wait inside for a while before they can come out. So there was great relief here. NASA's administrator, who's out here, Michael Griffin, watched the whole thing. He had to watch it on TV.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, NASA): Actually, I'm thinking about resigning my position in favor of Eileen Collins. I mean, she's smarter, more personable, better-looking, better pilot. You know, I'm thinking it's a good idea. Obviously, we're real pleased here today.

BRAND: And, David, the astronauts have now disembarked from the orbiter. It's cool enough, I suppose. So any word from them?

KESTENBAUM: They got their medical checkups. Then they were walking around the runway in their blue--they have these blue astronaut suits they always wear. And Eileen Collins stood there in the center. It kind of looked like maybe the photo you could put on the cover of an album. Looked like they were a singing group. Looked like she was going to sing, because she was standing in the middle of them in a sort of semicircle behind her and she was in front of a microphone with sunglasses on. And here's what she said.

Ms. EILEEN COLLINS (Discovery Commander): I'd like to say hello to everybody and on behalf of the STS-114 crew, we have had a fantastic mission. We are so glad to be able to come back and say it was successful. And we have resupplied the International Space Station, and we've met the test objectives of the space shuttle program, brought Discovery back in great shape, as you can see behind us. The crew was really anxious to walk around and see what the outside looked like, and it looks fantastic.

KESTENBAUM: Doesn't her voice sound a little strange? You know, there's a lot of noise on the space station, so I think like they're often probably screaming at each other. It's nice--what she said there is interesting, I mean, that they walked around and actually got a look at the space shuttle, because they want to see how it came through re-entry. There was a piece of like an insulation blanket, a little pillow, that was puffed out from below the window where she was sitting. And they want to see if that actually came off or what happened to that during re-entry. But she said everything seemed to look good.

BRAND: And now they have to get the space shuttle back to Florida. How are they going to do that?

KESTENBAUM: Right. So, unfortunately, they couldn't land it here. Now they're going to have to get it back here. And it comes back really slowly, not at Mach 25, but on the back of a 747. And the 747 airplane had to be--has to be structurally re-enforced so it can take the weight. It looks like the two are mating or something. There's a big airplane and slightly smaller space shuttle just sort of stuck on top of it. And it takes about a week and it costs--someone told me it costs a million dollars to get it back here.

BRAND: So we heard a bunch of problems early on with this piece of fabric, the tile and everything, but are people saying the mission was a success?

KESTENBAUM: Yes, of course, they're saying it was a success.

BRAND: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: But, you know, anytime you put the shuttle down and everyone lives, that's a success. And they got everything they wanted to get done on the mission done. They replaced this gyroscope, fixed another gyroscope and they transferred a bunch of cargo, tons of cargo, including things like drinking water and replacement exercise machine parts. The foam is a problem. The foam that fell off during launch is a problem. NASA spent, you know, over a hundred million dollars trying to fix that and a lot of effort and, still, this big piece came off. And, you know, if that had come off at a different time, it could have done serious damage. So they say they're not going to fly until they can fix that problem.

BRAND: And NASA engineers are thinking of an entirely different space ship now. Tell us about that one.

KESTENBAUM: Well, the goal is to go to the moon. And you might think, OK, so maybe we'll build something like the shuttle again. But, in fact, once you talk about going to the moon, you know, every engineer who's thought about that says, `Uh-uh.' It's not going to look anything like an airplane. It's going to look basically like what we did with the Apollo mission. The physics of it just dictate it. You're coming back so fast and at such an angle, there's no way you can sort of glide graciously to a landing strip and walk out and wave to the cameras. It's going to be, you know, a tough ballistic re-entry where you're just sort of plunging through the atmosphere and--just like the way it was for the Apollo astronauts. So the next generation is really--you know, this may be just a weird little thing we tried here with the space shuttle. It's a nice little cargo thing for going up to near-Earth orbit, but it's not the sort of thing you'd make for going to the moon or on to Mars.

BRAND: NPR's David Kestenbaum at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thanks, David.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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