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Congress To Probe Space Shuttle Safety Problems, Looming Retirement Issues

By | November 12, 2007

      Questions Arise Whether Shuttles Will Finish All Needed Missions

      A Senate panel this week will probe major questions about the space shuttle fleet, focusing on safety issues, whether the shuttles – before a mandated 2010 retirement — can finish building the International Space Station, and what will happen to NASA and the U.S. global image and prestige once the United States withdraws from space for half a decade.

      And, in the background, there will be another issue that looms in any federal program: money.

      These and other knotty questions will be thrashed out in a hearing of the authorizing-funds Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee, headed by Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who hails from Florida, home of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.

      The ranking subcommittee Republican is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a staunch supporter of NASA — her state is home to Johnson Space Center — who has worked with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science, and related agencies subcommittee, to increase NASA funding.

      Fielding questions from lawmakers on the subcommittee will be the top leaders of the American space effort: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin; Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, and Richard Gilbrech, associate NASA administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

      Multiple issues surround the shuttle fleet and its planned retirement in less than three years.

      Lawmakers want to know whether the shuttle fleet realistically will be able to complete well more than 10 missions required to finish construction of the space station. Only the shuttle has the size and brawn to hoist huge structural components into orbit to build the station segment by segment.

      Concerns have been raised by problems the shuttle fleet has encountered in its quarter-century-old history, problems that some lawmakers fear might recur.

      For example, NASA lost entire years of planned shuttle flights after two shuttles were destroyed in fatal accidents. First, there was the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger Jan. 28, 1986, because its O-ring seals didn’t work well in frigid winter weather so that a solid rocket booster exploded. Too, there was the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, as it attempted to return to Earth. During launch and ascent, a large chunk of foam insulation broke off from the external fuel tank and punched a hole in the leading edge of an orbiter vehicle wing. Later, the furnace-like heat of reentry rushed into the wing and heated it to the point of structural failure, destroying both ship and crew.

      At the hearing, lawmakers will wish to know whether disasters similar to the Challenger and Columbia tragedies could occur to one or more of the remaining shuttles.

      In the case of the Challenger loss, the fix was simple, to test O-rings for pliability and elasticity on each succeeding shuttle mission. But even after the Columbia mishap, the danger of a similar fate befalling shuttles still exists, though that threat has been reduced by redesigns on the external fuel tank, and by on-orbit inspections that prevent any orbiter vehicle disintegration during reentry.

      Each of those tragedies forced NASA to put further missions on hold for months while attempting to find steps that might avert similar problems in future missions.

      And each suspension of flights further compresses the manifest of succeeding NASA shuttle missions that must be performed before the shuttle-fleet retirement deadline.

      NASA leaders have said they still can finish building the space station by the 2010 shuttle fleet deadline. They note that they are now moving along at a pace of four shuttle missions per year.

      Yet some lawmakers still have concerns, because even a small glitch can cause a major delay.

      Case in point: just this year, Space Shuttle Atlantis was rolled out to the launch pad, ready for a mission, when a powerful thunderstorm swept toward it. The storm machine- gunned hail onto the foam insulation on the fuel tank, creating thousands of dings that then had to be repaired, a months-long job.

      The bottom line is that the year was almost half over before Atlantis lifted off the pad. With strenuous effort by NASA crews, the space agency now is poised to launch its fourth space shuttle mission of the year on Dec. 6, by coincidence involving Atlantis again. (Please see story in this issue.)

      But that launch might have to be pushed into 2008 if the space station crew can’t first make preparations for the arrival of the Columbus European laboratory module that Atlantis is to carry aloft.

      For the future, NASA will need to maintain an average of four launches annually over the next three years if the shuttle fleet is to finish its work before the 2010 retirement deadline.

      U.S. Leaving Space

      Retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010 will free money to help develop its replacement, the next-generation U.S. spaceship Orion (the crew exploration vehicle, a larger version of the Apollo moon-shot capsules) and Ares (the rocket boosting Orion).

      Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] is the prime contractor for the Orion crew vehicle, while ATK [ATK], The Boeing Co. [BA] and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, subsidary to United Technologies Corp. [UTX], will lead in various elements of the rocket program.

      But from 2010, when the shuttles cease flying in March or September, until sometime in 2015 when the first Orion-Ares manned mission is planned to rise from the launch pad, the United States — the nation that put men on the moon — won’t even be able to lift one astronaut into low Earth orbit. Rather, NASA will be put into the position of having to depend on the kindness of strangers, the Russians and possibly private space-travel companies, to take any U.S. astronauts to the space station.

      Lawmakers are expected to note that meanwhile, other nations are pushing their space programs full tilt, go at throttle up.

      While the United States remains stuck in low Earth orbit as it has since Apollo flights ended in the 1970s, China and Japan now have unmanned spacecraft orbiting the moon. India, too, is in on the Asian space race. And it is not inconceivable that Europe as well one day might have a manned lunar mission.

      Expect China to place taikonauts on the moon, perhaps doing more than a footprints-and-a-flag visit, before the end of the next decade. Other nations also may have space-suited figures moon walking in the dusty surface. For example, Germany may send its own orbiter vehicle around the moon in a few years, though no manned mission is now seen. (Please see story in this issue.)

      Several nations might by then be long-established on the lunar surface, to welcome the first Americans to visit the moon since the heady Apollo days. U.S. astronauts might become Johnny-come-lately to the lunar party, because even if the Orion-Ares spacecraft development, called the Constellation Program, goes well, no U.S. return to the moon is envisioned before the end of the next decade.

      And John Douglass, retired leader of the Aerospace Industries Association, warned publicly that Orion-Ares won’t become a reality unless a lot more money is put into it than current plans would provide. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Nov. 5, 2007.)

      Meanwhile, with no liftoffs of spacecraft bearing the American flag, Douglass, many lawmakers and leaders at NASA warn that young people will lose interest in the U.S. space program, just at a time when many of its veteran employees are planning to retire and must be replaced.

      Expect lawmakers at the hearing to ask how NASA expects to overcome this challenge, especially since it comes just when the Department of Defense, defense contractors and many others are facing a brain drain of highly skilled, highly educated staff members, with a dearth of young talent poised to pick up the baton.

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