Future of Shuttle Program May Ride on Discovery

By Rick Weiss and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 7, 2005

As the space shuttle Discovery navigates its dramatic return to Earth tomorrow, it will come freighted with much more than an exhausted crew and 6,300 pounds of worn-out gear and trash from the international space station.

The very future of the U.S. shuttle program will ride on its wings.

The question is not whether the shuttle will land safely. If it does not, the 25-year-old program will almost certainly have no future, experts agree.

The question is what NASA officials will conclude from the plethora of analyses they will be rushing to complete after the uneventful landing the agency expects.

If the problems relating to the external tank's foam insulation appear fixable with modest amounts of money and time -- and if data gleaned from the shuttle's newly enhanced sensory system indicate that the craft survived because of good engineering and not merely good fortune -- then the agency will be on track to achieve its current, albeit scaled-back, goal: keeping the shuttle alive for perhaps 20 more flights to complete enough of the space station to term it "functional," then move on to a new generation of vehicles.

If NASA must make major fixes, however, with delays of more than a few months and with new budgetary stresses, then Congress will face a difficult choice: pumping significantly more money into the shuttle program or retiring it early.

On the one hand, the government wants humans to have some capacity to get into Earth orbit until a new vehicle is ready -- as a matter of pride and to keep U.S. promises to the many nations that have been building space station components.

Although many see the station as little more than a zero-gravity albatross, it has enjoyed fabulous success as a promoter of international goodwill, and NASA regards it as an essential tool for testing the technologies of future space colonization.

On the other hand, there is a powerful desire to stanch the monetary hemorrhage that has long characterized the space station and shuttle programs, which together consume more than a third of NASA's budget.

"This mission was supposed to be the beginning of the end for the shuttle, not the beginning of another round of upgrades," said Howard McCurdy, a NASA expert at American University's School of Public Affairs. "The history of the shuttle has, unfortunately, always been that the upgrades and operational costs have eaten up the money that was supposed to be the seed corn for new expeditions."

The next measure of whether the shuttle is heading for a repeat of that pattern is the launch of Atlantis, scheduled for September. With the fleet grounded until NASA figures out why the improved foam system did not behave as predicted on Discovery, it is no longer clear that NASA can make the September launch window.

Shuttle officials pushed the launch back to Sept. 22, only five days before the window closes, and it could slip to November, December or next year unless engineers quickly find the cause of the foam debris in what NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin on Friday termed "a eureka moment."

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