Editorial for Monday — September 15, 2003

• Space shuttle

Space shuttle

One of the more puzzling recommendations of the board that investigated the Feb. 1 loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts was that the three remaining shuttles in NASA’s fleet be recertified as airworthy before 2010.

The process would involve a stem-to-stern examination of flight systems and sub-systems, and scrutiny of all of the spacecraft’s million-plus parts. Such recertifications are standard in the aviation industry when an aircraft exceeds its original design life.

What’s puzzling is not that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board called for recertifying the shuttles, but that it would allow them to fly before that process is complete. NASA jumped at the opportunity, announcing this week that Atlantis will fly next year on a full-bore test flight to the International Space Station.

Columbia, which first flew in 1981, was the first of the five shuttles built. Over the years, many of its parts and systems had been replaced and upgraded, but NASA had deferred replacing some because of budget cutbacks. The board’s investigation showed significant wear and tear on many critical parts even before Columbia’s final launch in mid-January.

Of the remaining three shuttles, Discovery first flew in 1984, Atlantis in 1985 and Endeavor in 1992. By aircraft standards, they aren’t old, but they are based on 30-year-old technology and a design critics have long argued is inherently unsafe. If America is to continue exploring space, it will have to be aboard the space shuttles, the only spacecraft capable of lifting the heavy components needed to finish the International Space Station. The accident investigation board said the pressure on NASA to meet the space station’s schedule played a role in the Columbia disaster. The next key piece of the space station was to be delivered by shuttle astronauts next March; that schedule is now uncertain.

The $95 billion space station has its own critics, who say the science it will produce can be done more safely and cheaply by unmanned spacecraft.

The rewards of space flight – manned, or unmanned – should be worth the risks and the investment. That’s a subject worthy of national debate. In the meantime, the shuttles should stay in their hangars until they are recertified. There’s nothing about the International Space Station that’s worth hurrying – or dying – for.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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