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Report Gives a Boost to Space Station Project

Board emphasizes its critical role, saying it's 'likely to be the major destination for human space travel' for at least the next decade.

August 27, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

With clear support for the resumption of space shuttle flights and obvious enthusiasm for the continued presence of humans in space, the Columbia accident report bolsters one of NASA's main goals: continuing to build and operate the international space station.

While the accident review board criticized "the lack of a clearly defined long-term space mission" for NASA, board members called access for humans to low-Earth orbit an important foundation for any human spaceflight goal, including trips to Mars and beyond. For the next several years, they said in the report released Tuesday, the space station would play a critical role.

"The international space station is likely to be the major destination for human space travel for the next decade or longer," the report said.

The space station and the space shuttles are inextricably linked. The shuttle is the only vehicle large enough to carry the components needed to build the station or to boost it back into proper orbit when necessary. The station provides shuttle astronauts with a place to go.

Because of a reduction in shuttle flights in recent years, construction of the station has been slowed and severely scaled back. There is not enough living space, or an escape vehicle, for the crews of seven that had originally been scheduled to live and work on the station.

Critics have long attacked the station and its estimated $100-billion final price tag as a boondoggle that has not lived up to its scientific promise and is used mainly as a political lever to justify the continued existence of the space shuttle program.

With the shuttle fleet grounded since February, NASA leaders have had to rely on their Russian partners to ferry astronauts and supplies to the station in smaller vehicles. NASA has cut the crew to a minimum -- two -- to conserve food and water.

The next astronaut scheduled to leave for the station, Michael Foale, has been told he can carry only three pounds of personal gear. On his last trip to space station Mir, he took 22 pounds.

Foale, who is scheduled to depart from Russia on Oct. 18, will have no crew to command, no construction to complete and no firm ride home. He and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri are scheduled to return home in April via the shuttle -- if it is running.

"It's one of the more interesting aspects of our flight. We don't really know how we're going to come home," Foale said. If necessary, the crew can return on a Russian Soyuz craft.

Even though he will be more of a caretaker than a construction crew chief, Foale said it was crucial that humans continue to live aboard the station, a multibillion-dollar project involving the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

"For us not to step up to this ... is really not an option," Foale said. Abandoning the station, he added, "would unglue all those countries who have put so much into putting this together."

Russia's space agency has stepped in to fill the void left by the shuttle and has agreed to send an increased number of staffed and non-staffed vehicles to the station to keep it staffed and supplied. But the reduction in astronauts and the construction stoppage have left international partners worried.

A Japanese laboratory module and a European-built segment needed to complete the station's backbone sit at Kennedy Space Center waiting for a shuttle ride to the station. Japan is anxiously awaiting a turn to send more astronauts to the station, and Russian officials have complained that their strapped space agency cannot pursue space research while spending resources on maintaining the station.

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