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Moving beyond the space shuttle


>                       Moving beyond the space shuttle
>    The  safe return of the space shuttle Discovery Monday was welcome news.
> But  the  mission,  just  the  second to be launched in three years, raises
> questions about the value and usefulness of the aging shuttle system.
>    The  space  shuttle has been flying for a quarter-century now; the first
> launch,  that  of  Columbia,  was  April 12, 1981. The shuttle system never
> realized  the  goals  initially  set  for  the  program:  to be a reliable,
> reusable  and relatively inexpensive means of getting men and machines into
> low Earth orbit. It was to be a "space truck."
>    The  shuttle,  designed  in  the  1960s  and  built  with the technology
> available  in  the  1970s,  is  an  enormously  complex system. It took two
> disasters and the loss of two shuttles | Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in
> 2003  |  and  their  14 astronauts to remind us that complex systems, given
> sufficient opportunity, will always fail.
>    We  accept  the  failure  of  much  less  complex  systems | such as the
> occasional crashes of jetliners | and the loss of life that entails because
> of their enormous usefulness. They are indispensable in modern life.
>    But  in what way is the shuttle indispensable? What is its vital mission
> that  must go on? The construction of the International Space Station? That
> project  was largely designed to give the shuttles something to do. The two
> or  three  people  on  the  ISS  at  any  given  time  are mostly repeating
> experiments done by the Russians a decade ago on their Mir station.
>    This  mission,  of  questionable  value  to  science, is also enormously
> expensive.  NASA  is  notoriously  difficult  to pin down on costs. But one
> estimate  by  a  University  of  Colorado  researcher is that it costs $1.3
> billion  per  launch  to operate the shuttle. The total cost of the shuttle
> program through its expected end in 2010 is $173 billion.
>    There is value in putting people in orbit, in using a space station as a
> platform  from which to reach to the moon and beyond. But the aging shuttle
> system is not going to get us there.
>    We  need  a  more efficient, less glamorous means of getting into space.
> Perhaps  separating  people and payload is the answer, much as the Russians
> have  done  for decades. Heavy, automated rockets carry payloads into space
> while astronauts travel in smaller capsules fired aloft on expendable, less
> expensive boosters.
>    The  shuttle has been a great technological achievement that never lived
> up  to  its potential. It's time to move on to the next generation in space
> travel.
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