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The Columbia Disaster

Space Station May Hang in Balance

Costly, much-criticized international project relies on shuttle fleet to ferry its crucial parts.

February 03, 2003|Peter Pae, Ralph Vartabedian and Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writers

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the potential long-term grounding of the rest of the shuttle fleet could doom the partially completed international space station, the heart of NASA's efforts to send humans into the cosmos.

The $100-billion project relies solely on the shuttle fleet to ferry the tons of parts -- trusses, solar panels, lab modules and dorm rooms -- needed to complete the project. The three remaining shuttles are the only vehicles large enough to carry construction parts to the lab orbiting 240 miles above Earth.

"The space station and the space shuttle are twins joined at the hips. Anything that goes wrong with one affects the other," said Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University.

NASA officials stressed Sunday the agency has no plans to immediately decommission the station or evacuate the crew. The agency said Russian vehicles could supply the three astronauts there now with fresh food and a means of escape in an emergency.

"We don't want to leave it unmanned, because we're exploring. We're doing science. We have a mission," said Bob Cabana, the operations director for the shuttle flight crews. "It just wouldn't be right to quit."

Only a fraction of the space station has been completed. Many of the scientific laboratory modules remain on the ground, and equipment needed to run experiments is not in place. Fewer than half of the station's power systems have been installed. The station is as big as a football field and weighs just under 400,000 pounds. If completed as planned, it will be twice as big and weigh about 1million pounds.

NASA had planned five shuttle missions this year to add major pieces to the growing station. The ill-fated Columbia had been scheduled to make its first trip to the station in November, carrying a truss segment.

The delay pushes back even further the completion of the station, which had stretched in recent years from 2004 to 2008 because of a slowdown in shuttle launches and problems with Russian and Japanese components. Adding further problems, routine maintenance and repair tasks could stack up if the station is left unattended, adding to the cost and time needed to finish.

Worst-Case Scenario

In the worst-case scenario, space station managers will face more than just a delay.

"I don't think it's a given that we'll fly the shuttle again," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a space and defense research firm in Alexandria, Va. "If it turns out the problem is easy and cheap to repair, they would probably default to flying the shuttles. But, on the other hand, if it is a big problem that takes a lot of money and time to fix, they will have to do the math and figure out whether to fix the shuttle or build a replacement."

No replacement is on the horizon. NASA has canceled several proposed shuttle alternatives because of cost and engineering problems. NASA considered breakthrough technology like the wedge-shaped, rocket-propelled X-33 space plane but abandoned the effort when it encountered setbacks in developing the revolutionary propulsion system. Efforts to make spacecraft with modest, evolutionary improvements were never attempted by NASA, leaving the agency with only 1970s shuttle technology.

More recently, NASA's new administrator, Sean O'Keefe, recommended pursuing a less ambitious orbital plane to ferry crew, but not large cargo, to the station. The shuttle would remain the main workhorse until 2020.

Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Sunday the space agency "intends to continue flying this vehicle system long into the future," but said no launches would occur until questions about Columbia's destruction had been answered.

Shuttles were grounded for 2 1/2 years after the explosion of the Challenger in 1986, even though the problem -- brittle O-rings that allowed hot gases to burn through an external fuel tank and trigger an explosion -- was discovered relatively early in the process.

Ground control cameras recorded the entire event, giving investigators crucial evidence.

Experts said this investigation could take far longer because clues are murkier. Columbia broke apart 207,000 feet above ground, leaving investigators with only small bits of debris and little visual information.

"There isn't any immediately available evidence from the ground of what went wrong," said David Acheson, a New York attorney who served on the commission that investigated the Challenger explosion. "This is going to be a long investigation."

The Shining Hope

The space station, long the shining hope of NASA's human space exploration program, was promoted throughout the 1980s and early 1990s as a potential platform for the human exploration of Mars and a powerful micro-gravity laboratory to create profitable new manufacturing processes, and to search for cures for AIDS and cancer. It was supposed to cost $8 billion.

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