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Mon, Jan 07, 2008

Playing Catch-Up: NASA Plans Six Shuttle Flights In 2008

Accelerated Schedule Causes Safety Concerns

Faced with continued launch delays, and a hard September 2010 deadline for retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA is scrambling to play "catch-up" on its obligation to wrap up construction of the International Space Station -- and has scheduled six shuttle missions this year to do it.

That would be twice the number of missions completed last year... and the agency is already handicapped by a one-month-plus delay in launching Atlantis due to problematic fuel level sensors in the external fuel tank. As ANN reported, NASA now aims for a January 24 launch for that orbiter... though it appears more likely it will be February before Atlantis takes flight.

The mounting schedule pressure is raising concerns that NASA may have to cut corners in its rush to get all those missions in, reports The Washington Post.

"This pressure feels so familiar. It was the same before the Challenger and Columbia disasters... this push to do more with a spaceship that is inherently unpredictable because it is so complex," says Duke University professor and former NASA historian Alex Roland.

William H. Gerstenmaier has been with the shuttle program since the beginning, and now serves as NASA's chief of space operations. He says while the shuttles are now 27 years old, they're actually safer than ever due to all the accumulated knowledge about how to fly them.

So... why the hard deadline? You may thank the White House for that. In 2004, President Bush called for the retirement of the shuttle fleet on September 30, 2010 -- so the agency could divert its efforts to further-flying (and higher-profile) missions to the moon, and beyond.

Gerstenmaier remains optimistic NASA will be able to do the job, on-time. "The schedule we've made is very achievable in the big scheme of things," he said, before adding a disclaimer. "That is, unless we get some unforeseen problems."

Alas, unforeseen problems have defined the shuttle program since its inception.

John Logsdon, a former member of the panel which investigated the 2003 Columbia disaster is now a space policy analyst at George Washington University. He tells the Post another shuttle failure would likely suspend the manned space program for years, and must therefore be avoided at all costs. Somewhat contradictory, however, Logsdon wants NASA to wrap up the shuttle program, post haste.

"Every time we launch a shuttle, we risk the future of the human space flight program," he said. "The sooner we stop flying this risky vehicle, the better it is for the program."

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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