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ISS/Shuttle News




NASA Gets Set To Boost Flight Rate

By MARCIA DUNN
.c The Associated Press

  
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - NASA has long yearned for the day when it could 
start sending space shuttles up in quick succession to the international 
space station. 

``One of these days,'' shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore kept saying, 
``the dike is going to break, the dam is going to burst.'' 

Well, D-day is finally here. 

Safety is the main concern as NASA gets set to boost its space shuttle flight 
rate in order to furnish and finish a space station that's more than two 
years behind schedule. The surge begins Friday with the scheduled launch of 
Atlantis. 

Just last week, the General Accounting Office warned that a dwindling and 
aging shuttle work force could jeopardize flight safety as the pace picks up. 
An independent team commissioned by NASA offered an even grimmer assessment 
last spring, saying cutbacks had eroded safety procedures and put undue 
stress on the remaining workers. 

In response, NASA and its prime shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance, 
have hired a few hundred more people, including experienced veterans. 

The space agency also is modernizing the shuttle to make it safer. 

``We're starting to embark on a set of activities that is probably as complex 
as anything that we've ever done in the space business, including landing on 
the moon,'' Dittemore says. ``We have tens of flights, assembly flights, tens 
of spacewalks and these are all related.'' 

Atlantis will carry a load of space station supplies on this week's mission. 
A U.S.-Russian crew of seven will unpack the shuttle and a cargo ship that's 
already waiting for them, and hook up equipment both inside and outside the 
outpost orbiting 230 miles high. 

Discovery will follow in October with the first major truss that will extend 
beyond the modules already in place to carry electronics and communications 
equipment. Then Endeavour is to arrive in November with the U.S. power supply 
and Atlantis again in January with Destiny, America's lab module. 

And so it will go, mission after mission, until the station is completed in 
2006. After that, the station is planned to operate for 10 more years - with 
tens more shuttle ferry flights. 

Everything had been on hold pending the arrival of the control module Zvezda, 
Russian for Star. Its flawless docking in July, after more than two years of 
delay, broke the shuttle logjam and paved the way for the planned launch of 
the station' s first permanent crew on a Russian Soyuz rocket on Oct. 30. 

Beginning with Zvezda, the next year should see 15 American and Russian 
flights to the space station. Space station manager Jim Van Laak calls it 
``the most intense period of flight operations human space flight has ever 
undertaken.'' 

NASA plans a total of five shuttle flights this year, then eight flights in 
2001 and just about every year thereafter. That compares with a paltry three 
missions in 1999 and five in 1998, when Russia's cash shortage curtailed work 
on Zvezda. 

With an estimated 1.2 million procedures performed on a shuttle before each 
launch, the increase in workload is painfully clear. 

Astronaut Terrence Wilcutt, commander of Atlantis' upcoming flight, worries 
about the stress on NASA of going from three to five to eight missions a 
year. But he believes the space agency is up to the task and says morale in 
the astronaut corps is ``really, really high.'' 

``Everybody's waiting to get this thing going,'' Wilcutt says. ``You can see 
all the crew assignments that need to be made and everyone knows that they're 
standing in line somewhere.'' 

NASA last logged eight shuttle missions in 1997. The all-time high was nine 
in 1985, the year before the Challenger disaster. Back then, flight 
controllers only had the shuttle to worry about; now they're monitoring a 
space station, too. 

``Flying two vehicles at the same time does put an increased stress on the 
available manpower,'' says flight director Phil Engelauf. ``It's hard to work 
multiple projects at the same time and that's what we're going to have to do. 
But at the same time, that's pretty much what people have wanted to do. 
That's why we came here.'' 

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