- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will soon issue its final report, and although it is important for NASA to fix the most glaring problems that the board identifies, it is also necessary for the agency to look toward the future of manned flight. Fortunately, NASA has an administrator in Sean O’Keefe who seems willing to address those pressing problems with pragmatic, practical solutions, as demonstrated by his recently announced plan to open an independent safety office.

At a recent meeting with editorial writers and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. O’Keefe outlined his vision for NASA’s future in greater detail. After finding Columbia’s problems and fixing them, Mr. O’Keefe said that his first priority is to get the shuttles launching again next spring, he expects Atlantis to be taking flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The essential components of the ISS will be added in the next four.

Mr. O’Keefe said that while he believes the shuttle will continue to be the best platform to launch additional components to the ISS, the Orbital Space Plane will be the best way to get personnel there, thanks to its expected ability to use fairly wide launch windows and its much greater in-space maneuverability.

Moving beyond that to long-distance, long-duration exploratory flights will require NASA to overcome the significant losses in bone and muscle mass that astronauts experience during long periods without gravity. While cosmonauts doing year-plus tours of duty aboard the Mir found that consistent exercise helped to reduce the magnitude of those losses, they still represent significant challenges, especially coupled with the high levels of radiation that space travelers are expected to receive.

The scale of those problems could be reduced by shortening trip times. That’s the point of Project Prometheus. The goal of the project is to develop high-powered nuclear propulsion systems which will allow spacecraft to traverse the solar system much faster than they are currently capable of. Mr. O’Keefe hopes those systems will be sufficiently far advanced to drive a probe to explore the moons of Jupiter around the end of the decade.

Those challenges must be overcome before NASA can proceed with any of the plans space enthusiasts and advocates have called for —whether a trip to a potentially threatening near-Earth object, the establishment of a permanent base on the moon or a trip to Mars.

Another challenge NASA must address is personnel. According to Mr. O’Keefe, the agency will lose up to 30 percent of its workforce to retirement over the next three to five years. Congress could ameliorate part of the problem by legislating NASA the ability to use better management practices, but those proposals have essentially stalled in committee.

What clearly has not stalled is NASA’s drive to extend the human frontier in space. The agency has needed, and still needs, Mr. O’Keefe’s steady hand to deal with the Columbia crisis and his outstanding management skills. His plans to address the power and physiological challenges of long-term space travel are vital. But Mr. O’Keefe’s statements and NASA’s recently released 2003 Strategic Plan concerning specific vision for the future of manned space flight remain somewhat nebulous. We look forward to more specific plans soon.

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