- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

The loss yesterday of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts once again put the NASA shuttle program on hold as a host of engineers, scientists and politicians try to figure out what went wrong.
"This is a tragic day for the NASA family but also for the American people," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said at a Kennedy Space Center news conference. He pledged that the space program immediately would begin to "discover the cause of this tragedy."
Mr. O'Keefe, an Ashburn, Va., resident, has assumed the responsibility of finding out what happened to Columbia and its crew and of restoring confidence in the agency that President Bush named him to head near the end of 2001.
Yesterday's disaster came 17 years and four days after the spectacular 1986 loss of the Challenger shuttle and its crew of seven in an explosion 73 seconds after liftoff.
"The future of American manned space flight is in more doubt now than it was a few years ago, when it was just finding funding to see if it could fly," David J. Shayler, who wrote the book "Disasters and Accidents in Manned Space Fight," told The Washington Times.
The future of the program won't be up to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the astronauts, Mr. Shayler said.
"The guys who fly these missions accept that risk. It all depends on politicians and the public, who don't fly these missions, and whether they accept the risk. That will tell you whether you have a future space program or not," Mr. Shayler said.
Mr. Bush yesterday said that in an age when space flight has become routine, "it is easy to overlook the dangers," but that the cause for which the seven astronauts died would continue.
"Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on," the president said.
Ron Dittemore, NASA shuttle program manager, said there is "certainly a hold on future flights until we get ourselves established and understand the root cause of this disaster."
He said all operations and machinery associated with the program have been frozen to preserve evidence, but that within a few days, as NASA eliminates potential explanations, some operations will resume.
"We're going to launch shuttles again as soon as we are ready. The training is going to continue," Mr. Dittemore said. "The best therapy in this business is to get on with your job."
The Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger accident shut the shuttle program down for 32 months, while a commission appointed by President Reagan investigated the incident. NASA did not resume flying until 1988, after shuttle designers made several technical modifications, and quality-control and safety regulations were stiffened.
Just last year, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel issued a report that expressed praise and concern for continued space shuttle operations. The panel had "major concerns" about the continuity of personnel, their long-term experience and the fact that replacement aircraft had not yet been planned.
The panel noted that shuttle ground facilities and infrastructure, test equipment, pads, and cable trays and cabling were "Apollo-vintage equipment," and that it had taken "some heroic action to keep it running."
In Moscow yesterday, Russian space officials said the disintegration of Columbia could lead to a temporary suspension of manned missions to the International Space Station, which depends on U.S. shuttles and Russian spacecraft.
The Columbia explosion could force "the return of the crew to Earth and the switching of the station to automatic pilot for an indefinite period," one Russian official said on condition of anonymity.
If the cause is determined to be the age of the craft, he said, the United States probably would freeze future shuttle flights for fear of another crash.
That, he said, would leave NASA unable to send astronauts to the station until 2007 or 2008 and force the construction of new shuttle craft.
But the Russian officials said today's launch of a Progress cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) would go ahead as planned. They suggested that Russian Soyuz craft might have to take over some U.S. supply missions to the International Space Station for a time.
"This could affect supply flights to the ISS. It is hard to say whether some will be transferred to Soyuz or whether the shuttle will also operate them. It will all depend on the conclusions made by the Americans," said Sergei Gorbunov, a spokesman for the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos.
If necessary, a Soyuz vehicle attached to the space station could bring the three astronauts aboard back to Earth at a moment's notice. The current station crew consists of NASA astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Russian Soyuz commander Nikolai Budarin.
Columbia did not visit the station; Space Shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to do so March 1. Slated to command the 12-day Atlantis flight is Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, 46, who served as the pilot aboard Discovery in 1995 and Atlantis in 1997, and as commander on Columbia in 1999.

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