- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

Saturday's loss of space shuttle Columbia will impact NASA's plans for continuing construction of the orbiting International Space Station, even though Columbia's visits to the station were limited.

The STS-107 flight that ended in the shuttle's breakup over Texas was the first of six flights being planned for 2003. Ironic, but the last of those flights, set for liftoff on Nov. 13, was to be a Columbia flight carrying supplies to the station.

The 11-day mission would have been the space agency's 21st flight to the station since its assembly began in 1998. That November flight of Columbia also was planned to carry "Educator in Space" Barbara Morgan.

The remaining missions planned for the rest of 2003 and for the next several years were either to continue assembly of the station or deliver food and supplies to the orbiting complex.

The next flight, which almost certainly will be delayed as a result of the Columbia accident, was a March 1 launch of shuttle Atlantis with a crew of four and three new members bound for the station. The current three station astronauts were to be returned to Earth aboard that flight.

The third shuttle mission this year was scheduled for May 23. It was intended to bring a set of solar power wings to the station using Endeavour, the youngest of the four shuttles.

Flight four was to be a July 24 Atlantis mission, returning the station astronauts brought up in March, and replacing them with a new crew. Flight five was planned for Oct. 2, using shuttle Endeavour once again to loft more power arrays to the station. The dates on the manifest were considered subject to change as the time for the launchings neared and potential mechanical, weather or technical factors interfered.

NASA already had planned two flights for 2004, and was expecting to schedule four flights a year until 2006, when the annual flight rate was to be increased to five. The 2004 cutback was for budget reasons. The two flights planned to visit the station were to be in January and February, again rotating crews and hauling an attachment unit to continue construction of the orbiting base.

The initial phase of station construction, called "core complete," was set to end in 2006. At that point, NASA was to have decided whether to continue construction to add modules from Europe and Japan, which would require additional astronauts beyond the current crew size of three. At that stage, the agency also would need a new means of returning astronauts to Earth, because the current method — Soyuz capsules provided by the station's Russian partners — can accommodate only three people.

In November, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe announced plans to develop a small space plane that could begin flying astronauts to the station in 2012, or acting as the crew-return craft for a larger crew. Part of the justification for the project was to ease the transition from full dependence upon the fleet of shuttles to having an alternate capability to send up or return humans from space should the shuttles be grounded. NASA also wanted to gradually restrict use of the shuttles to lift heavy cargoes to orbit or to the station, using the space plane for routine flights of people and small cargo. The space plane project has not yet been approved by Congress.

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