Index

Published Sunday, October 1, 2000, in the Miami Herald

NASA's future wedded to costly, aging shuttle

With the 100th flight of the space shuttle program set for Thursday, NASA concedes the latest project to build a replacement is behind schedule and over budget.

BY MARTIN MERZER

The nation's only vehicle capable of carrying humans into space relies on 1970s technology, cannot vault them out of Earth orbit and is plagued by staff shortages, mechanical problems and the icy memory of a winter day when seven astronauts died.

The 100th flight of the space shuttle program is set to blast off Thursday from the Kennedy Space Center, and NASA now concedes it must rely on the shuttle until at least 2012. The latest project to build a replacement is behind schedule and over budget and may never fly.

The prolonged dependence on the dated and troubled shuttle could slow efforts to build the International Space Station by 2006 and otherwise explore space, experts said. But engineers and explorers have no choice.

They must use the shuttle ''until it blows up or wears out,'' said John Pike, who monitors NASA for the Federation of American Scientists. ''And it's perfectly capable of blowing up every time they launch it.''

It's a harsh assessment, but one that is widely accepted. The shuttle is the most complex machine ever designed. A study released last month by the General Accounting Office found that each of NASA's four shuttles requires 1.2 million maintenance operations before every flight.

''Space systems are inherently risky because of the technology involved and the complexity of their activities,'' said the report, which noted with alarm that cost-cutting has left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with an exhausted, demoralized workforce.

In addition, public support for space exploration seems thin. A Gallup poll last December found that only 56 percent of Americans support robotic missions to Mars, a necessary step before human missions. Forty percent did not want to spend more money on such missions.

WHAT AILS NASA

That concerns Kurt Volker of Dania Beach. During the 1960s, he worked at Cape Canaveral as an electronics technician on the Apollo moon landing project.

''I don't think NASA necessarily lacks the vision to put the spark back into the space program,'' he said. ''What they lack is the same level of support in Washington for human space exploration that there was during the days of Gemini and Apollo. The attitude today seems to be 'been there, done that.' ''

Still, it's the only space show around, so Volker and his wife plan to drive to the Kennedy Space Center this week to watch the 100th launch.

NEXT MISSION

Seven astronauts aboard the shuttle Discovery are scheduled to blast off at 9:38 p.m. Thursday on another mission to build the space station.

The 11-day flight will be extremely demanding, with most work occurring outside the shuttle.

Two pairs of astronauts will conduct four spacewalks. They must attach a heavy girder, connect a new shuttle docking port and install toolboxes and power converters.

The crew has been training for this mission for 3 1/2 years, nearly twice as long as most crews.

''If there was ever a mission worth waiting for, this is it,'' said Pamela Melroy, the shuttle's rookie pilot.

Scientists say the space station will allow them to work in microgravity, which can speed progress on the development of new medicines and materials.

MOVING INTO STATION

If all goes well, this week's mission will open the door for the new station's first permanent residents.

Astronaut Bill Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts are set to blast off from Russia on Oct. 30 and live in the station for four months.

Even the shuttle's critics agree with supporters that the vehicle is well suited for this kind of work. It is a spacefaring ferry that carries cargo and astronauts into Earth's orbit.

Still, the shuttle has failed to come close to its promoters' grandest promises.

When the program was proposed in the 1970s, NASA said it was capable of launching 60 shuttles a year.

Since the inaugural flight of Columbia on April 12, 1981, the agency has never broken into double digits in any year.

Last year, it managed only three launches.

In addition, the cost of flying the shuttle is enormous -- roughly $500 million per flight, which breaks down to about $10,000 per pound of cargo carried into space.

''It's been a profound disappointment as far as what was promised,'' Pike said. ''But also, knock on wood, it's been a reliable -- if expensive -- way of getting into space.''

Reliability is a relative concept, and many question just how reliable the shuttle is.

VIVID MEMORY

It may not be fair, but the most profound memory that many people carry of the shuttle involves the Challenger accident of Jan. 28, 1986. All seven astronauts aboard Challenger were killed, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, NASA's first -- and last -- ''citizen in space.''

The tragedy resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program, and the fleet has been grounded many times since by mechanical problems.

Now, NASA calculates the risk of catastrophe at one in 438 missions; others think it is much higher, possibly as high as one for every 78 launches.

The shuttles were built to withstand 100 flights, and the oldest shuttles -- Columbia and Discovery -- have flown 26 and 27 times, respectively.

''We're only a quarter of the way through their rated life span,'' said Bruce Buckingham, a NASA spokesman. ''It's a significant achievement that we can continue to fly a vehicle developed 25 years ago.''

REPLACEMENT SOUGHT

Conceding that the shuttle is becoming technologically obsolete, NASA has spent $1 billion on a modern, higher-tech replacement -- the triangular, flat-bottom VentureStar.

It is supposed to leap into space on a single-stage reuseable rocket, without the disposable external fuel tanks or recoverable external rockets that are part of the shuttle.

Supporters also hope it will be more reliable than the shuttle and cheaper to operate, liberating funds for more weather satellites and other projects that might win public support.

OBSTACLES REMAIN

The only problem with VentureStar is that it doesn't seem to work.

A half-size prototype, the X-33, was supposed to fly 18 months ago.

So far, no joy. The test vehicle still is only half built. Among other things, its lightweight, hydrogen fuel tanks have a tendency to rupture, a definite disadvantage.

A new attempt to build fuel tanks will be started, NASA announced Friday, and the X-33 has no chance of being tested in flight until at least 2003.

Many believe VentureStar will never get off the ground. In response, NASA now wants $4.5 billion during the next five years to look at other possible replacements for the shuttle.

At the same time, acknowledging that it is stuck with the shuttle until at least 2012, NASA is embarking on a $2.2 billion modernization program.

Inspectors from the General Accounting Office generally approve, but they raise several concerns.

STAFFING SLICED

One of the most serious involved staffing. NASA's budget was sliced during much of the 1990s, falling from $14.4 billion in 1995 to $13.6 billion this year. In response, the agency fired hundreds of skilled engineers and other workers.

Widely criticized for the cutbacks, NASA recently began hiring again. But it remains woefully understaffed at a time of increased flight schedules.

As for the more distant future, most observers do not detect public support for -- or an ability within NASA to promote -- ambitious new programs of human spaceflight to the moon, Mars or beyond.

So, for as long into the future as anyone can predict, the shuttle is the only hope.

Said Pike: ''If the Lord had meant us to fly in space, we would have been born with more money.''