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'COLUMBIA IS LOST'

Space Station's Future Is Unsure, but Crew Is Safe

February 02, 2003|David Holley and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — The loss of the space shuttle Columbia raises questions about the future of the orbiting international space station, especially if it indefinitely grounds the U.S. shuttle fleet, said Russian and American officials Saturday.

A planned launch this morning of a Russian Progress cargo ship to ferry supplies to the facility was to proceed as scheduled. It is due to dock with the station, which was first occupied in 2000, Tuesday morning.

But if Russia becomes the only nation capable of flying to and from the station for an extended period, there may not be enough vehicles to keep the station functioning, much less allow the international community to complete its construction.

"It is the fate of the ISS that is at stake now," said Boris Y. Chertok, a Soviet space pioneer.

The safety and well-being of the three men in the station are not in question, officials emphasized.

"We have sufficient consumables on board to go through the end of June without any shuttle support," said Ron Dittemore, NASA's shuttle program manager.

Columbia's loss means at least a temporary grounding of the remaining three shuttles, which almost certainly will result in a significant delay in completing the $100-billion space station.

NASA had scheduled five shuttle flights this year to ferry 80,000 pounds of components and supplies to the station, whose core structure is only two-thirds finished.

The U.S. space agency and its international partners had expected the station to become "a research facility with unmatched capabilities" by early 2004.

Such expectations -- and the presence of two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut aboard the space station -- may loom large during the Columbia investigation and perhaps exert pressure on the U.S. to resume its shuttle flights.

"Obviously the shuttle has to be grounded for a limited time," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), former chairman of the House space subcommittee, told National Public Radio. "This investigation ... has got to be done much more quickly than the Challenger investigation," which grounded the shuttle fleet for two years after the January 1986 explosion.

In his remarks mourning the crew, President Bush also expressed a determination to resume America's space program.

"The cause in which they died will continue," he said. "Our journey into space will go on."

NASA had planned to triple the station's electricity-generating capacity this year in what the facility manager Bill Gerstenmaier called "the most challenging [year] ever" in the facility's construction.

The station's core was to be completed this year, capping four years of construction. NASA had planned to send up 31 people from at least five countries -- including Idaho educator Barbara Morgan, who was a backup to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire schoolteacher who died in the Challenger explosion.

As a part of those missions this year, NASA also had scheduled 24 spacewalks, which would have set a record for any single year.

NASA's blueprint called for the station's truss, or "backbone," to be extended from the present 134 feet to 310 feet by December.

In addition, about 30 scientific experiments were planned aboard the station this year, ranging from biology and physics to chemistry, ecology and medicine, as well as tests on myriad long-term effects of spaceflight on humans.

"The space station was intended to help us learn to live long-term in space," one former top NASA administrator said Saturday. "If we're going to go to Mars and to the outer planets, we've got to learn how to live for long periods of time in space."

The space station is a joint project of the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.

Today, the facility is being manned by commander Ken Bowersox and science officer Don Pettit, both Americans, and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin.

Until recent years, as many as six people were aboard the space station at any one time. But budget cuts led to reduced staffing and fewer scientific experiments, according to the former NASA official who requested anonymity.

Attached to the station is a three-person, rocket-propelled Soyuz craft, which can be used by the crew as an escape vehicle.

During a NASA briefing Saturday, Dittemore was tentative when asked about the likely duration of the shuttle fleet's grounding.

"I hope that we get this situation resolved in the coming weeks so that it isn't an extended period of time," he said. "But that remains to be seen."

In Moscow, Sergei Gorbunov, a spokesman for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, was more pessimistic.

"Shuttle launches will most likely be stopped, possibly for several years, until the causes of the Columbia accident are determined," he said.

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