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Future of space shuttle creates quandary for NASA

WASHINGTON—Owners of older cars wrestle with this choice: Spend more money on repairs and nurse their beloved old vehicles along for a few more years, or swallow hard and buy something new—and better.

NASA is near that point with the space shuttle.

Construction started on NASA's three remaining shuttles in 1979, 1980 and 1982. The basic shuttle design dates back to 1969, making it older than four astronauts who hope to ride aboard.

Now with Discovery's latest flight, not only has the nation's space agency found that it hasn't completely solved the shedding-foam problem that doomed Columbia two years ago, but it's also got some impromptu repairs to do in space. Wednesday an astronaut will take an emergency spacewalk to try to remove or clip some cloth filler that's jutting between two tiles on the ship's belly, lest it catch fire on re-entry and endanger the flight.

That's got some people—including a former astronaut—wondering if the shuttle should be put out to cosmic pasture sooner than NASA's planned 2010 retirement. Then, they say, the nation can move ahead on President Bush's ambitious agenda to fly astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and on to Mars in a new spaceship.

"If it were up to me, I probably wouldn't fly the shuttle again," said astronomer and former astronaut George "Pinky" Nelson, who flew on Discovery after the Challenger accident. "They're 10 years behind already. We're going to have to bite the bullet ... and somehow keep the agency viable."

But that's not so easy.

One big complication, filled with international intrigue and a price tag of many billions of dollars, especially gums up decision-making: the international space station. The United States has committed to complete construction of the half-built orbital complex, which is a partnership of 16 countries. Japan and the European Space Agency have built and paid for new station additions that are ready or near ready to launch.

Only the shuttle can take them up.

NASA already has spent $21.4 billion on space-station hardware, not including nearly a billion dollars for each of the 16 shuttle launches flown so far to build the seven-year-old complex. NASA has scheduled 24 more shuttle launches to complete the station's construction. The bulk of the European Space Agency's multibillion-dollar station components are supposed to start launching next year.

"We need it (the shuttle) for a few more years," said former NASA Administrator James Beggs. "We have commitments to our foreign partners to finish up what we started."

That's what's keeping the shuttle alive, said American University professor Howard McCurdy, who has written several books on NASA. "Without the space station, we'd roll those things into the Dulles annex (of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum) right away."

John Logsdon, space policy director at George Washington University and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said the space station is "a perfectly fine half-built facility. Do you just walk away from it?"

Then there's another problem. Building the shuttle's replacement is at least five years away.

Deciding what to do with the shuttle is "clearly one of the existential crises of the agency," Logsdon said. "Because it (NASA) has this exciting future, but it can't get to it without solving this issue."

To be sure, the shuttle has its defenders.

The shuttle "is probably the greatest spaceship that man has ever made," said NASA's legendary former manned spaceflight chief Chris Kraft, who oversaw the shuttle design as well as the Apollo lunar missions. "The space shuttle has taken a bad rap."

NASA plans to fly its three shuttles until the space station is finished, then retire them in 2010. That year or the next, NASA would test-fly a new crew vehicle and kick Bush's space-exploration plan into gear.

NASA's formal plan to return astronauts to the moon and then on to Mars will be unveiled in a few weeks. One version, leaked to the Orlando Sentinel, shows the space agency spending more than $200 billion over the next 20 years. It would use modified shuttle rocket boosters with small capsules attached for the crew, which would hook up with unmanned ships riding larger rockets on the way to the moon.

For now, officially, the space agency is "not looking to change any of the plans we have in place," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. "Retirement of the shuttle is still five years from now."

But that would require the shuttles to fly reliably for the next five years. And Discovery's problems this week—and how NASA deals with them—leave the shuttle program's fate in the hands of astronaut Steve Robinson and his spacewalk repairs.

"Now it seems to be that the vehicle performance is driving the movement toward ending the era," said Valerie Neal, a space-history curator at the Smithsonian. "A lot of people are saying we're at that (retirement) point; my guess is that it's all going to hinge on how this mission turns out. We really are at a pivot point right now."

There's less tile damage on this flight than previous missions, but because that's what downed Columbia, there's a lot more scrutiny that brings problems to light. That makes decisions about what to do next a lot tougher, said Carnegie Mellon University decision-science professor Paul Fischbeck.

NASA says it can keep flying the shuttle at a few billion dollars a year even as it develops the shuttle's replacement using other funds.

But NASA's spending history proves otherwise, said American University's McCurdy. Like an old car, keeping the space shuttle in working order so it can keep going is eating into the down payment for its replacement.

"The longer NASA spends money on the shuttle, the less money it has on the launcher for the crew-exploration vehicle," McCurdy said. "Except for the international commitment, and we've got an asset that is on its way to weighing a million pounds in orbit, it's time to move on."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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