- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2005

From combined dispatches

NASA rolled out the red carpet for Discovery’s astronauts yesterday in a celebration to welcome home the first space shuttle crew since the Columbia disaster 2 years ago.

But while the seven weary astronauts were reunited with their families in Houston, several hours after the Tuesday touchdown at NASA’s backup landing strip in the California desert, uncertainty remains for the future of the shuttle program after the anxiety-ridden, two-week mission.

The shuttle fleet — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — has been grounded because of Discovery’s technical troubles during this flight. NASA officials promise they won’t fly again until they figure out what caused large and potentially dangerous chunks of foam to fall off the shuttle’s external tank during launch.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has vowed to try to get the shuttle back in space this year, but has made clear his dislike for the shuttle. And his underlings recently expressed publicly their doubts about the vehicle.

In the NASA bureaucracy nowadays, one frequently hears the shuttle compared to an old car that no longer might be worth continual expensive tuneups, and to a “camel” — a horse designed by committee, as the old joke goes.

Wayne Hale, the erudite yet folksy shuttle program deputy manager, admitted that “clearly what we decided [to do] for the first flight [back to space], we didn’t do it right.”

Cynics might wonder whether Mr. Hale’s aw-shucks mea culpas reflect a deeper NASA agenda — convincing Congress that the 24-year-old shuttle fleet is such aging junk that it must be replaced as soon as possible with a new, shiny, safer and more reliable generation of manned rockets.

Later this summer, NASA is expected to release more details of its plans for the next generation of manned space rockets, starring the so-called Crew Exploration Vehicle. Unlike the shuttle, which flies to orbit alongside the foam-insulated external fuel tank, the CEV would sit atop its booster rocket. Thus, falling foam wouldn’t hit the CEV as it sometimes hits the shuttle.

Meanwhile, NASA officials must decide whether to fly any shuttles ever again and, if they decide to do so, whether they should routinely conduct repair jobs on future flights. Routine repair work takes a lot of time. It also is potentially dangerous: Any time an astronaut walks in space, he risks exposure to micrometeoroids, unusually high radiation doses from solar flares and other hazards.

When or whether the shuttle will fly again is a question of real urgency. For diplomatic reasons, the United States is committed to building the International Space Station, the still-unfinished jewel in NASA’s orbital crown. The shuttle is needed to complete the station.

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