- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

Weather permitting, NASA plans to launch the space shuttle Discovery today from Cape Canaveral in what could be one of the shuttle program’s final flights. Why? Because if anything goes wrong, which doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of a third shuttle, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin will likely end the program.

Just recently, he said if “we lose another vehicle, I will tell you right now that I would be moving to figure out a way to shut the program down.”

Even something as small as what occurred last summer, when the same foam debris that doomed Columbia in 2003 flaked off Discovery’s outer hull requiring a mid-mission repair, anti-shuttle forces both within and from outside NASA will probably prevail in their long-running effort to move forward from the 1970s-era program.

In any case, it’s doubtful that the shuttles will function well enough to complete the International Space Station, which could require as many as four flights a year, before the scheduled 2010 shutdown. Already two NASA chiefs have voiced their discomfort with today’s scheduled launch, whereas NASA estimates it will take 17 more flights to finish the ISS. Should the shuttle fleet be grounded permanently, then so are the chances of ever completing the station, which might not be such a bad thing. Even Mr. Griffin has said “we don’t know … what the [station] will become.” At a cost approaching $100 million — in addition to the billions that will be spent sending further shuttle missions — not knowing what the ISS will be used for is a pretty strong reason to just stop trying to build it.

Despite this, polls show that the public still approves of NASA’s performance. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 57 percent said the agency does a good or excellent job. That’s a surprisingly high number, considering NASA hasn’t done much to inspire the public’s imagination in recent years, aside from unmanned missions to Mars and comets. What it seems to suggest, however, is that the public appreciates the risks involved with space flight and remains proud of NASA’s legacy.

Unfortunately, the shuttle program has quickly become a blot on that legacy. We have always supported the continued presence of the United States in space, even if that presence was relegated to low-Earth orbit. But the years since the Apollo glory days has added a whole range of programs to NASA’s limited resources; manned programs like pushing the human footprint further into space have been ignored, while those like the shuttle are underfunded. The hope is that once the shuttle is a museum piece, NASA can refocus its funding almost exclusively on fulfilling the president’s Mars vision.

That said, Godspeed to the Discovery astronauts.

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