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Flightless and Fancy Free

As dawn breaks at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Space Shuttle Atlantis waits at Launch Pad 39B. NASA hide caption

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NASA not only keeps America's aerospace contractors in business, the space agency does a wonderful job supplying material for NPR newscasts. Whenever a shuttle launch is approaching, you can count on frequent reports about whether or not the shuttle will fly. We learn about frost ramps, faulty fuel cell sensors, weather forecasts and all sorts of other minutiae. This is all irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, of course. After all, shuttle flights are ostensibly made to support the space station, and the main purpose of the space station is to be completed so it can be phased out and superseded by something more visionary.

My colleague Nell Boyce has been camped out at the Kennedy Space Center once again this week, waiting for the shuttle Atlantis to be launched. She tells me there's now a joke running around the space center. Some folks are now calling Atlantis the penguin. Why? Because it's black and white and flightless.

To NASA's credit, the space agency does not appear to be rushing ahead heedlessly. The temptation is always there (it's called "launch fever"), especially now. NASA would dearly like to fly as many missions as it can to the space station by the end of 2010. On December 31 of that year, the shuttle turns into a pumpkin and will not fly again. Full stop. (And so far, no asterisk on this promise). So whether NASA manages four flights or 14, the space station will officially be complete, and NASA will move on toward its plan to return to the moon.

The really big news there is not what we'll do once we get back to the moon (can NASA please get back to you on that?), but which aerospace contractor will get the contract to build the spacecraft. As we learned last week, Lockheed Martin was the surprise winner, with a craft that my colleague David Kestenbaum noted seems to be sporting Mickey Mouse ears.

Oh, NASA is pondering whether to attempt a shuttle launch again tomorrow. Tune in for the latest.