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Peril of Aging Shuttles Told to Congress

April 19, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — There's danger ahead for space shuttle astronauts unless Congress pays for long-term upgrades to the aging spaceship fleet, a NASA safety expert said Thursday.

"I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now," said Richard D. Blomberg, former chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's aerospace safety advisory panel.

The next flight, and perhaps many after that, will be safe, he told the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics. But unless Congress provides money to adequately upgrade the shuttle fleet now, he said, "nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far."

Other officials disagreed, saying the shuttles receive regular upgrades and have a long life span left.

"We will never take off unsafe," said Frederick D. Gregory, associate administrator of the Office of Space Flight.

Nonetheless, Blomberg said Congress needs to catch up to the threat that age poses to the 21-year-old program.

Their comments came as shuttle Atlantis' astronauts aimed for a homecoming in Florida today after completing one of the most complex construction jobs ever at the international space station.

Good weather was forecast for the touchdown at Cape Canaveral.

The seven astronauts installed a 44-foot girder at the orbiting outpost. It is the first segment of an aluminum frame that eventually will stretch 356 feet, have railroad tracks spanning the entire length, and support four sets of solar wings.

The shuttles are growing older and need new parts and technologies. So is the launching equipment, built almost 40 years ago at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Also, as the first generation of shuttle personnel retire, hiring freezes and other cutbacks could prevent that institutional and technical knowledge from being retained, Blomberg said.

As Congress decides how much money to grant NASA next year and how the agency should spend it, lawmakers are growing frustrated with internal institutional debates over the shuttle's future, whether it should be upgraded, replaced or both, and whether to contract out some of its services.

"I feel like the agency is without a clear vision and without a clear direction," said Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.).

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