- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Space shuttle missions have turned out to be significantly different than NASA first envisioned more expensive and complex, while serving more limited uses.
Now with its main current function servicing the International Space Station on hold after the Columbia accident, National Aeronautics and Space Administration critics say the agency should consider scrapping the shuttle in favor of a simpler approach.
"The fundamental reality is that it was designed to do something other than what it is doing," said John E. Pike, director of the space and military policy think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
More than 20 years after its first flight, the shuttle essentially has become a space truck that gets terrible gas mileage.
It totes cargo at a cost of roughly $20,000 a pound.
NASA has vigorously defended use of the shuttle. "The United States raised the standards for space exploration when it inaugurated the world's first reusable space vehicle, the space shuttle," NASA's associate administrator for human space flight, Frederick D. Gregory, told Congress in April.
When the first space shuttle flew, the spacecraft had a three-pronged mission.
It would carry scientific experiments for NASA, launch spy satellites and test equipment for the military, and provide satellite-launching services for the private sector. NASA set a goal of 24 missions a year.
The shuttle was not meeting its hoped-for flight frequency and was more expensive than expected even before the January 1986 Challenger explosion on takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
That further reshaped how the shuttle was used, especially after a post-Challenger investigation concluded that the chance of a catastrophic failure was one in 78 launches.
After Challenger, the military returned to expendable rockets for its satellite-launching needs. On the commercial side, President Reagan ordered NASA out of the satellite-launching business.
That left the shuttle with less to do.
NASA launched its own research satellites with the shuttle. The shuttle launched and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope, showcasing the shuttle's unique capabilities. The shuttle also carried various science experiments into orbit at a high price.
"I think the science argument is very weak. The only argument that I would accept as science-based is the argument that you're learning about peoples' biological response to being in zero gravity," argues Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"You don't need a reusable vehicle to do those experiments. In fact the Russians have shown that you can do it very well without a reusable vehicle."
NASA officials have vowed to resume shuttle flights as soon as they discover and fix whatever caused Columbia to break apart over Texas.
Columbia's final mission was one of just a handful in the last few years that have not visited the space station. All five of the remaining flights on this year's shuttle schedule were dedicated to constructing the orbiting outpost.
As an agency that prides itself on innovation, NASA does not relish the thought of using Apollo-era expendable-rocket technology to send humans into space.
For more than 30 years, it has struggled to usher in a Buck Rogers era of safe, inexpensive and routine human spaceflight.

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