- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 2 (UPI) — As NASA braces itself for what promises to be a long and tedious investigation into what caused shuttle Columbia to perish as it returned to Earth on Saturday, an unmanned Russian rocket blasted off Sunday to ferry supplies to the International Space Station crew.

The fuel, food, water and other gear are critical for keeping the three-man crew — two Americans and one Russian — in orbit. After Columbia was destroyed and seven astronauts killed, NASA grounded its three other ships, impounded flight processing data and set up a series of investigations to determine the cause of the accident.

Preliminary speculation centers on a failure of the ship's thermal protection system, which is critical to shielding the ship from the 3,000-degree temperatures generated by hypersonic speeds through the atmosphere. The breakup of the shuttle appears to have started on its left wing, which coincidentally or otherwise, was struck by a piece of foam insulation falling from the external fuel tank during liftoff on Jan. 16. The accident claimed the lives of Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Israeli Ilan Ramon.

Shuttle program director Ron Dittemore said with the arrival of the Progress cargo on Tuesday, the space station will be adequately stocked to keep the crew in orbit through June. NASA had planned to dispatch a shuttle to the station in March, the first of five shuttle missions this year needed to complete construction of the orbital outpost by February 2004.

Those plans are on indefinite hold, pending the results of the Columbia investigation.

Russian officials said Sunday the Progress rocket — which lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 7:59 a.m. ET — will enable the crew to stay aboard through May. Commander Ken Bowersox, flight engineer Nikolai Budarin and science officer Donald Pettit, who had been scheduled to return to Earth next month, likely will remain in orbit for two or three additional months. If the shuttle fleet has not yet been cleared to resume flying, the crew would mothball the outpost temporarily and return home aboard the station's Russian Soyuz lifeboat.

"The cosmonauts are fully secure," Russian space agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov said in an interview with the Tass news agency. "They can be evacuated by a rescue module at any time."

Gorbunov predicted the space shuttle fleet will be grounded for at least one year. Russia plans to send two more Progress cargo ships and two Soyuz capsules to the space station this year. Typically, three people fly aboard the Soyuz, but Gorbunov said the ships, which are delivered the station every six months to serve as lifeboats, could be flown without a crew to save station supplies for the live-aboard residents.

"This is under discussion," Gorbunov said.

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